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Politics Choose ethics over asbestos exports, MDs tell physician-turned-Tory MP

Hundreds of health professionals are urging a doctor-turned-Conservative MP to honour her medical oath and work against Canada's controversial asbestos industry.

An open letter signed by some 250 medical doctors and public-health professionals was sent Thursday to Kellie Leitch, a prominent pediatric orthopedic surgeon elected last spring as a Tory.

The letter writers say Dr. Leitch has a duty to influence her Conservative colleagues to pull the plug on a sector they say will spread deadly disease in poorer countries.

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The Conservative Party is the only federal party that supports the asbestos industry.

"We understand that doing the right thing may run counter to your political interests," reads the letter from Canadian and international signatories as well as more than 20 organizations.

"However, your ethical code of conduct as a medical doctor requires that you put the protection of health ahead of personal advantage, no matter what the circumstance."

The newly elected MP for the central Ontario riding of Simcoe–Grey was a star candidate for the Conservatives in the last federal election.

Dr. Leitch was an associate professor of surgery at the University of Toronto and earned the Order of Ontario for her medical contributions – particularly for her work in children's health.

Her office said Dr. Leitch was travelling Thursday and was not immediately available to comment.

The Conservatives – led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper – have been vocal supporters of Canada's asbestos industry, which ships the vast majority of its product to poorer nations.

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The Tories have long maintained that Canada's chrysotile asbestos is safe when handled properly.

But the letter's signatories, including physicians from prestigious universities such as Harvard and Columbia, argue there are no regulations in poorer countries to protect people from the harmful effects of the hazardous substance.

"These double standards are just really unethical," said signatory Gilles Paradis, a professor of medicine at McGill University and the science editor for the Canadian Journal of Public Health.

"It's an easy thing to do for governments because it's a no-lose situation for them because they can be seen as defending Canadian jobs... and the disease, disabilities, the deaths that result from the use of asbestos occur far away."

The letter also notes the federal government has spent millions of dollars to remove asbestos from Canadian buildings in order to protect lives – including around the House of Commons.

It notes that the Canadian Medical Association, Canadian Cancer Society, Canadian Public Health Association and World Health Organization have all called for the use of asbestos to be stopped.

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Dr. Paradis hopes the message will get through to Dr. Leitch, who he believes has the credibility to speak up and influence her party to end its support for a sputtering sector that's centred in central Quebec.

"As a physician, we're sure that she knows the incontrovertible evidence about the harm that chrysotile asbestos produces," Dr. Paradis said.

"We just want to remind her that she has a professional duty to live by the principles of the Hippocratic oath that as physicians we all are supposed to adhere to."

He said the Hippocratic oath is a moral – not legal – commitment requiring physicians to do everything in their power to restore and preserve the health of their patients.

"The question is: Does this responsibility stop at our borders?" Dr. Paradis asked.

The letter was sent while the Quebec government is trying to decide whether to back a bank loan to revive one of Canada's last remaining asbestos mines – a project proponents say would create 500 jobs in the town of Asbestos.

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The country's only other operation is in Thetford Mines, about 90 kilometres from Asbestos.

Mr. Harper voiced his support for the industry on a campaign stop in the region – represented by his Quebec lieutenant Christian Paradis – before the spring election. The Prime Minister also spent Quebec's St-Jean-Baptiste Day holiday there in June.

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