Critics of the indulgent Canadian government policy toward the industry have amassed a list of what seems like every medical organization in the country—the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Cancer Society, the Canadian Lung Association, the Quebec Medical Association. Not even the World Health Organization tempers its judgment. As an official put it, “WHO’s position is extremely clear: that all forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans. WHO would be very happy to see as many countries as possible phase out asbestos. It has been clearly identified as a public health risk.” The respected British medical journal The Lancet said last year that “until recently, asbestos exportation was the elephant in the room in Canadian politics that no party was brave enough to take on, due to industry opposition.” This year, the Liberals got on board with an NDP motion to ban asbestos exports. It was defeated by the Conservatives, with the help of the Bloc Québécois, in November.
For all the damage it has done to Canada’s reputation, asbestos is a small industry. In fact, by the time Ottawa gets around to banning the export of asbestos, there may be no asbestos industry left to argue about. There is still lots of asbestos fibre to be found in the 60-kilometre swath from Thetford Mines to Asbestos. But it’s expensive to mine when measured against the lower-cost and comparatively unconflicted industries in Russia, Brazil, Kazakhstan, China and Zimbabwe.
Thetford Mines was shaken last summer by a newspaper story that its LAB Chrysotile mine could run out of asbestos within the next year. Mine officials denied the forecast, but production at the mine has been declining sharply in recent years. Then came reports that the mine will be shut down indefinitely in November. (The company did not return calls.)
The Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos has been barely operational for the past eight years. The mine’s uncertain future is staked on the considerable talents and persuasion of a Montreal businessman who came to Canada in 1973 from his native India to study business. Three years later, Baljit Singh Chadha started his own company and teamed up with a Canadian asbestos firm that needed an agent in India or at least a Canadian who knew the Indian market. These days, his trading company annually ships about $100-million worth of nuts, dried fruit, wood and asbestos between India and Canada.
Chadha’s accomplishments, including his philanthropy, were recognized by former prime minister Jean Chrétien in 2003, when he appointed Chadha to both the Security Intelligence Review Committee and the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada. Chadha has had intimate ties to a succession of federal and provincial Liberal governments, most evident recently when he hosted fundraisers for former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff and Premier Jean Charest and accompanied Charest on a trade mission to India.
For all that, Chadha was a low-profile figure until he made a bid to buy the Jeffrey Mine last year and started to champion the export of asbestos this year. The Quebec government is keeping the mine afloat with a $58-million loan guarantee, on the condition that Chadha find outside investors who will put $25 million into the project.
Both Chadha and provincial Economic Development Minister Clément Gignac have insisted that exporting asbestos to India is beneficial for the country’s impoverished millions. Chadha also told The Globe and Mail that WHO has set a safe threshold for chrysotile exposure. That statement was contradicted in a rare public rebuke from WHO.
“There is very little scientific evidence against us,” Chadha said subsequently. “In fact, there is none.”
For 24 years, Durai Swami loaded and unloaded sacks of asbestos and piles of asbestos cement sheeting in Ahmedabad, the fast-growing hub of Gujarat state and India’s industrial capital.
Swami worked eight hours a day, six days a week. In return, the Shree Digvijay Cement Co. Ltd. each day dispensed 230 rupees ($5) and a 150-gram lump of dark, sticky cane sugar, called jaggery. His managers instructed him to suck on it through the day. “They told us if we ate it, all the dust that we breathed in would stick to it and move through our system and not hurt us,” he says.
That’s the sort of thing that passed for safety equipment at the factory, where Swami worked until recently. After 10 years of the sugar fix, the workers were given gloves, and cotton handkerchiefs to tie over their mouths. But for more than a decade, there has been nothing at all, Swami says.
India has a voracious market for asbestos, which is used to make a cement composite used in low-cost building products. Canada sent 69,575 tonnes of asbestos to India in 2010, according to the United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics Database, with a value of $39.1 million (U.S.). The leading supplier to the country, by far, is Russia. In 2010, Canada ranked third after that country and Brazil.