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Infrastructure Minister Chuck Strahl responds during Question Period in the House of Commons on Sept. 20, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Infrastructure Minister Chuck Strahl responds during Question Period in the House of Commons on Sept. 20, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Chuck Strahl

Asbestos should be listed in Rotterdam Convention as potentially harmful Add to ...

Many years ago, back when Conservatives had yet to even dream of a stable, majority, conservative opportunity and Jack Layton's dad was a Red Tory minister, I was a logging contractor in British Columbia's West Coast mountains. Those were rugged days in rugged surroundings, with rugged loggers doing their best to out-macho their co-workers. Things like hearing and eye protection, safety clothing, or aversion to asbestos were afterthoughts at best. There was no malice; understanding and communicating the perils of long-term exposure to noise, saws, chemicals and carcinogens wasn't common place. We just didn't think about it.

Loggers like me operated some of industry's largest and most dangerous equipment. I loved every minute of it. Huge and powerful, they fit the personalities of the men of the woods - aggressive, production-oriented, no-nonsense types who didn't wait around to listen to some do-gooder tell them about the dangers of asbestos. That was a big, big mistake.

One of the machines I ran was a yarder, which is basically a huge set of winches bolted to a modified army surplus tank. The brakes on these winches were asbestos, and they had to be massive and oversized. An inch thick, six inches wide, and three feet in circumference, they clamped onto a huge drum and were ground into asbestos dust, 9-10 hours a day. The brakes might only last a week before they had to be replaced. The operator sat on a seat not two feet from the asbestos, breathing it in and out, day after day.

Not surprisingly, exposure of this kind caused problems. But never immediately. Like smoking a cigarette, the effects take time. And, like smoking a cigarette in those days, people just didn't know about the long term impacts of asbestos. But we do today. The doctors tell me that the cancer I was diagnosed with six years ago and collapsed my lung was certainly caused by exposure to asbestos. Miraculously and thankfully, my cancer hasn't grown and I'm symptom-free. Most guys that get diagnosed are dead in six to 12 months.

Canada has to decide if asbestos should be listed in the Rotterdam Convention as a product that is 'flagged' as potentially harmful. We should do that, not because chrysotile, or white, asbestos is the most dangerous (it's not) or because it cannot be used safely in some circumstances (it can), but because importers and exporters have the right to know it can be problematic if misused.

Last year, the Canadian government responded to the request of the mayor and local industries in the Thetford mines area by funding a new natural gas pipeline to the town. Local people say it is key to providing reasonably priced energy to those who want to develop alternatives to chrysotile mining. Let's hope it is the first of a number of initiatives that lead to a diversified economy in the region.

The Prime Minister and Quebec's regional minister have both said that they support the safe use of chrysotile asbestos. It's hard to argue with that. By listing chrysotile in the Rotterdam Convention as a product that deserves to be handled carefully and with proper warnings, safe use is more likely to occur. Workers from all countries will be grateful for that notification - if not today, then a generation from now.

Chuck Strahl is a former British Columbia logging contractor and Conservative parliamentarian.

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