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Jeffrey Asbestos Mine open pit is located in Asbestos, Que. (Francis Vachon for The Globe and Mail)
Jeffrey Asbestos Mine open pit is located in Asbestos, Que. (Francis Vachon for The Globe and Mail)

Andre Picard

Government investment in asbestos is morally bankrupt Add to ...

Investissement Québec, a government agency, has provided Jeffrey Mine Inc. with a $3.5-million loan, allowing it to continue mining asbestos for a month longer and giving it one last gasp at attracting foreign investment.

One has to wonder why.

Why are the governments of Quebec and Canada so hell bound in their support of a deathly, dying industry?

How can a country and a province that claim to care about human rights and international health justify peddling tonnes of a carcinogen to the developing world for a few shekels?

What horrors are being wrought in the name of economic development, and in a bid for a few votes?

To date, 52 countries have banned asbestos. It is a cancer-causing product, and we have known so since the 1950s. The tiny fibres, when inhaled, can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis.

Asbestos was once a miracle fibre because of its resistance to fire, rust, rot and termites.

In Canada, the "white gold" was once used liberally, in everything from pipe insulation to car brakes, modelling clay to talcum powder.

As a result, we have one of the highest rates of asbestos-related cancer in the world. In Quebec, asbestos is responsible for half of all workplace-related deaths.

Domestically, the use of asbestos is now strictly regulated under the Hazardous Products Act. We go to great lengths and much expense to remove it from public buildings, including Parliament and 24 Sussex Dr.

Yet Canada allows - and actively promotes - the export of asbestos. Ottawa even opposes the inclusion of asbestos in the Rotterdam Convention, a treaty on the use of hazardous substances.

The federal government also provides $250,000 a year to the Chrysotile Institute so it can flog asbestos abroad and propagandize at home.

The institute is a master of Orwellian doublespeak: It calls asbestos "chrysotile"; it promotes the "safe use" of the product, glossing over the scientific evidence that there is no practical means of safe handling; its lobbying is responsible for the fact that, in Quebec, the "safe" level of exposure to asbestos is 10 times what it is in other provinces; and one of the group's favourite rhetorical claims is that asbestos is invaluable and safe because even NASA uses it.

Indeed, asbestos is used on the space shuttle so that it won't catch fire during launch and re-entry. But the reality is that the principal buyers of asbestos are India, Bangladesh and Indonesia, where the mineral is used in construction. Needless to say, the workplace safety standards in these countries aren't exactly comparable with NASA's.

"When it comes to the asbestos industry, you readily abandon science and put forward the lie that Quebec asbestos can be safely used, when even your own government health experts have told you this is not true," Mohit Gupta, co-ordinator of the Occupational and Environmental Health Network of India said in a stinging letter to Quebec Premier Jean Charest.

Every credible health organization in Canada, from the Quebec Institute for Public Health to the Canadian Cancer Society has condemned the federal and provincial governments for their unethical promotion of asbestos.

More than 100,000 people worldwide die of occupational exposure to asbestos each year, according to the World Health Organization.

But that is only the tip of the iceberg. Asbestos-related disease has a long latency period; workers breathing the fibres today will be sick and dying in decades. And, unlike Canadian workers, they will have little legal recourse.

Canada - one of the top five asbestos exporters in the world - is a major contributor to the carnage, but we turn a blind eye to it.

It is apathy tinged with more than a slight hint of racism. Killing workers in India is no more acceptable than killing them in Canada, regardless of the jobs the practice creates in small-town Quebec.

There are two asbestos mines in Canada: the LAB Chrysotile Mine in Thetford Mines, Que. is a few years from exhaustion; and the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos, Que., which is in bankruptcy protection. Between them they account for 7 per cent of the world production of asbestos, worth a few hundred million dollars a year.

These mines should be allowed to die an overdue death. Monies that go to promoting and subsidizing the sale of asbestos should be redirected to retraining and supporting the remaining workers - about 500 in total, almost all of them close to retirement age.

But Bernard Coulombe, owner of the Jeffrey Mine, has grand plans. He wants to massively expand and extract 200,000 tonnes a year of asbestos (oh, sorry, chrysotile) for the next 25 years.

He needs a $58-million investment to make a go of it.

Quebec was prepared to make a loan guarantee in that full amount, with a few token conditions, such as attracting some private investment and asking importers to respect safety standards. But the support seems to be wavering.

It is time to stop "exporting death made in Quebec," according to Gilles Paradis, scientific editor of the Canadian Public Health Association Journal.

"The decision by the Quebec government to continue exporting chrysotile asbestos is a public health tragedy for Canada and the rest of the world. Asbestos kills workers and citizens. … The decision is wrong, unethical, indecent and we should be outraged."


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