MAC: Mines and Communities

Asbestos: Canada - and India's - enduring shame

Published by MAC on 2009-04-27

Canada's Health Ministry sat for more than a year on a report by a panel of international experts which concluded there was a "strong relationship" between lung cancer and chrysotile asbestos mined in Canada.

This shocking revelation was made last week by a Canadian newspaper - four months after one of the panel's members claimed that banning the toxic material is "the only means for preventing a tragic repeat of the epidemic of asbestos related diseases ... still occurring in the U.S. and Europe, in the developing countries that are currently importing and using chrysotile asbestos from Canada and other countries."

Below, Gopal Krinshna of Ban Asbrdtos Network India (BANI) summarises the current scientific debate.

We also carry a brief report on the status of an asbestos mine in India, whose government has not only allowed increased foreign imports of chrysotile asbestos, but may now permit domestic mining to recommence.

Canada's reprehensible global role

A document entitled "Canada, Chrysotile and Cancer: Health Canada's Asbestos International Expert Panel Report" was published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in December, 2008.

In an editorial for the journal, Dr. Leslie Stayner, one of the scientific experts appointed in early 2008 to the Health Canada panel on chrysotile asbestos - and whose report the government did not release, says:"What should be truly embarrassing to the Canadian government and people is their position that exposure to chrysotile asbestos is safe and that there is no need to warn the developing countries that it exports to, about the hazards associated with its use.

"There is simply no scientific evidence to support this position. The banning of asbestos is the only means for preventing a tragic repeat of the epidemic of asbestos related diseases that is still occurring in the U.S. and Europe in the developing countries that are currently importing and using chrysotile asbestos from Canada and other countries."

Canada's role in promoting the use of chrysotile in poorer nations like India, Pakistan and Vietnam is reprehensible. Leading scientific institutions - such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Labour Organization (ILO), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH), and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) - have called for chrysotile asbestos to be banned.

The Asbestos Institute (re-named the Chrysotile Institute in 2004) is funded by the Canadian government, the Quebec government and the asbestos industry. The Economic Development Agency of Canada and the Department of Natural Resources have given the Chrysotile Institute more than $20 million over the past 25 years. In February 2008, the Canadian government announced another grant of $750,000 to the Chrysotile Institute for the next three years. Canadian Medical Association Journal has asked the Canadian government to stop this funding.

[Commentary by Gopal Krishna, BANI, 17 April 2009].

Asbestos tied to lung cancer: report

Sarah Schmidt

Canwest News Service

16th April 2009

Health Canada sat for more than a year on a report by a panel of international experts that concludes there is a "strong relationship" between lung cancer and chrysotile asbestos mined in Canada.

Health Canada received the report in March 2008, resisting calls from the panel chairman to release the findings despite his plea last fall that the delay was "an annoying piece of needless government secrecy."

Canwest News Service obtained the report under Access to Information legislation, but the request took more than 10 months to process.

While the panel found the relationship between chrysotile asbestos and the rare form of cancer mesothelioma "much less certain," there is a "strong relationship of exposure with lung cancer," panel chairman Trevor Ogden wrote in the newly released introductory letter to the report.

Ogden, editor-in-chief of The Annals of Occupational Hygiene and based in Britain, also noted the panel was comprised of members "who in the past have expressed strongly opposed views on this subject." They included industry consultant David Bernstein, previously retained by asbestos producer Union Carbide Corp. and Canadian and California asbestos mining companies.

In an interview, panellist Leslie Stayner, director of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Illinois School of Public Health, said while the panel agreed the link between exposure to amphibole asbestos -- another form of the mineral -- and mesothelioma was stronger than chrysotile asbestos, the experts couldn't agree about the actual degree of that difference.

"The most important thing is what it doesn't say, which is some people have alleged it would say. What it doesn't say is that exposure to chrysotile asbestos is safe," said Stayner.

"I think the bottom line here is that all forms of asbestos cause both mesothelioma and lung cancer. We will probably for many years still be debating this question of relative hazard of chrysotile. The fundamental question of whether it's hazardous or not is clear. I think the answer to that is, yes, chrysotile is a hazardous substance."

The release of the report has reignited the debate about the future of the asbestos industry in Canada, a particularly divisive issue in Quebec, where the industry is concentrated.

Pat Martin, the New Democrat MP who has long championed a ban of asbestos exports, said the conclusions of the expert panel should propel government to take action.

"It makes our case. The reality is we're at a tipping point. The jig is up for the asbestos industry," said Martin, who worked in a Yukon asbestos mine as a young man without being warned of the health risks.

Successive Liberal and Conservative governments have held firm on a "safe use" policy. Health advocates have long chastised this position as politically expedient to accommodate a Quebec constituency rather than a decision based on sound science.

The panel was not asked to make a finding on the "safe use" principle. Stayner gave a personal assessment of the science, saying the concept is a misleading one.

"My opinion, really, is safe use is a canard. We can't really believe that shipping these asbestos fibres to countries like India, that they're going to somehow magically use chrysotile in a way that is safer than we have in the West."

Health Canada announced late Wednesday that members of the public can contact the department to receive a copy of the report, but that there is no roll-out planned. A spokesman chalked up the delay to Health Canada taking the "time necessary to carefully review the findings of the report, and to consult other federal and provincial partners."

© Copyright (c) The Regina Leader-Post

Poised on the breach of poisoning

[Editorial note: The following is based on notes by a mining expert who visited
the Saibaba Asbestos mine site in Cuddapah (Kadapah) district of the Indian state of Andrha Pradesh in early April 2009.]

"The Saibaba asbestos mine operated illegally, under the aegis of a relative of Andhra Pradesh's Chief Mininster until recently, when it was supposedly closed down. However, the term "closure" is meaningless, since it is clear that operations could recommence at virtually a few hour's notice, if a permit to re-open were issued (or even if not). I encountered only three workers on site, who seemed to be maintaining merely a watching brief.

"The two access shafts to t he underground mine are closed, but only by a couple of weak padlocks which could be broken by a child; the electricity relay station is operational. Thousands of tonnes of wastes and tailings lie around the site which extends along a 2 km corridor). The two milling sheds - which are completely open - contained several piles of loose fibres, with some packaged bags lying around.

"A large hill of what appeared to be cement lay close by the main mill, with empty cement bags blowing in the wind. Access to the site is unrestricted, either to humans or animals; there are no fences nor warning notices. There'has been absolutely no attempt to remove, or even safeguard, any of the toxic dumps although the nearest human settlement is but half a kilometre away; an ineffectual bund, with absolutely no tree cover, separates the two. Any concept of 'care and maintainance' is totally absent. Overall, it would be hard to imagine a more parlous situation for local villagers or livestock."

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