MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Canada: Telling lies about Asbestos

Published by MAC on 2011-04-04
Source: Postmedia News

Canada's Natural Resources minister has infuriated anti-asbestos campaigners by claiming the deadly material can be safely used.

Meanwhile, newly-released internal records show the Conservative government repeatedly withheld information on the "strong relationship" between lung cancer and chrysotile asbestos.

This was despite objections from the country's leading asbestos scientist and communications advisers.

Expert demands feds retract statement on 'safe' use of asbestos

By Sarah Schmidt

Postmedia News, Montreal Gazette

28 March 2011

OTTAWA - A key member of the government's expert panel on asbestos is demanding Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis retract recent comments that cited the group's report to promote the "safe use" of asbestos.

In a letter sent to Paradis last week and obtained by Postmedia News, Leslie Stayner, an asbestos expert at the University of Illinois's school of public health, says Paradis' comments to the media are a "total misrepresentation" of the expert panel's report, commissioned by Health Canada.

The latest development on the asbestos file comes just as newly released internal records show the Conservative government repeatedly held back the report about the "strong relationship" between lung cancer and chrysotile asbestos over the objections of Canada's lead asbestos scientist and communications advisers.

Asbestos is a hot-button issue, particularly in Quebec, where it's mined and exported to developing countries such as India.

The expert report, provided to the government in March 2008, was released 13 months later after a long delay under access to information legislation.

Paradis, who represents the Quebec town where asbestos is mined, earlier this month told media in Quebec that the government has "adopted a clear position and there have been no new facts since then. Our position remains the same, that of promoting the safe use of asbestos," said Paradis.

"We have done our homework in this area. We assembled a panel of international experts and we came to this conclusion."

But in his hard-hitting letter to Paradis, Stayner said the expert panel was never asked to address the question of whether chrysotile asbestos could be used safely.

"Had we been asked this question, I would certainly not have supported the argument that the continued production and use of asbestos in any form, including chrysotile, is safe. It is impossible to believe that developing countries such as India will be able to use chrysotile asbestos in a manner that protects public health when more technically advanced countries like Canada and the United States have failed to do so," Stayner wrote to Paradis.

In an interview, Stayner said his letter calls on Paradis "to retract this statement, which is just patently false." He also asks the minister to support a ban on the production and export of chrysotile asbestos mined in Quebec.

Paradis was not available Monday to comment on Stayner's retraction request.

Separately, newly released internal Health Canada records provided to Postmedia News under access to information also show the Conservative government disregarded internal advice on how to roll out the findings of the expert panel, raising fresh questions about political calculations by the Conservatives in holding back public-health information for over a year.

According to Health Canada's initial communications plans, prepared in February 2008, the department recommended the politically sensitive report be quietly posted on its website.

This "low profile, proactive" approach was considered the best option, given the dual pressures of balancing a serious public health issue flagged in the report with a possible election and political ramifications in Quebec, according to the initial plan.

"The Expert Panel Report is expected to indicate that chrysotile asbestos poses more risk to human health than previously thought, but is not as dangerous an amphibole asbestos," says the Health Canada communications plan.

When that plan wasn't executed, Health Canada developed another communications plan on October 20, 2008, immediately following the federal election that re-elected the Conservatives on Oct. 14.

Health Canada recommended the report be posted immediately on the department's website so it could be made public before a high-profile international meeting the following week about asbestos control.

"The report confirms that chrysotile asbestos poses a risk to human health, and that it is as potent, or nearly as potent, as a lung carcinogen as amphibole asbestos, but is less potent in causing mesothelioma. Given its findings, it will be difficult to explain why Health Canada waited seven months before releasing the report," the second draft communications plan stated.

Meanwhile, Health Canada's lead scientist in charge of developing the government's chrysotile asbestos risk assessment made clear that the department's "upper management" was set on making the March 2008 report public almost immediately - or "some time in April."

"We cannot nor do we wish to hold you to secrecy, and we (are) committed to make the report public. It is just a question of red tape," Health Canada scientist Michel Camus wrote on April 1, 2008 to Stayner.

Stayner, bound by a confidentiality agreement until the government released this report, had inquired about why the report had not yet been made public.

Following this exchange with Stayner, Camus turned to senior civil servants at Health Canada to push the Conservative government to release the report, so the report's messages aren't "distorted" and "misinterpreted as patches on some hidden plot."

Pat Martin, an NDP MP from Winnipeg and longtime critic of the asbestos industry, said Conservative government's decision to delay the release of the report is revealing.

"It's a disgrace. But I also think reason and logic and health and science have nothing to do the government's irrational affinity for asbestos. It's all about Quebec politics," said Martin, who used to work at an asbestos mine.

According to the newly released internal records, senior policy advisers from the Health Minister's Office and the Office of the Natural Resources Minister received a detailed briefing about the report in May 2008. Tony Clement was health minister at the time and Gary Lunn served as natural resources minister.

According to a summary of the meeting, Marc Toupin from Lunn's office was "preoccupied about the acceptability of risks for the neighbouring population in Quebec's chrysotile mining towns."

Toupin was later implicated in trying to stop the release of documents requested under access to information on two separate occasions in 2009 when he worked in Paradis' office during his time as public works minister.

Over 50 countries ban the use of asbestos, but Canada continues to be one of its main exporters.

Home | About Us | Companies | Countries | Minerals | Contact Us
© Mines and Communities 2013. Web site by Zippy Info