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Canada exporting 'misery' of asbestos

Shipping to Third World is criminal: MD says

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NEW DELHI -- Canada's export of chrysotile asbestos to developing countries is "criminal" and is killing workers in India, medical experts in New Delhi warned this week.

Dr. T.K. Joshi, head of India's occupational and environmental department, said at least 100,000 factory workers and millions of construction workers across India inhale chrysotile asbestos every day. It's a toxic material that causes lung inflammation and, in some cases, cancer.

Most workers don't wear masks on the job. Joshi said companies don't uphold labour standards and workers are too poor or uneducated to demand better working conditions and materials.

While doctors like Joshi can rattle off a list of patients who have died from chrysotile asbestos exposure, most cases go undocumented and fewer than 30 workers have been compensated for asbestos-related health problems in the last decade.

Canadian chrysotile asbestos accounts for one-third of all the asbestos in India and is used to make everything from concrete water pipes to metal roofing. The rest is imported from Zimbabwe, Russia and Kazakhstan.

"The most baffling thing is there's really very little economic (benefit) associated with asbestos production in Canada, so why should it induce misery in other parts of the world?" Joshi asked.

"It would be far better if the Canadian government not only stops the export of asbestos, but joins hands with us to stop the use of asbestos everywhere."

Asbestos is one of several occupational health concerns that about 75 doctors from across India discussed at a three-day healthy-workplace seminar in New Delhi this week. Joshi said the idea is to educate more physicians about the serious health threat from asbestos and pressure the governments of India and Canada to ban the material.

Japan, Argentina, Australia, South Africa and the European Union are among the 40 nations that have banned all asbestos imports.

In July, the Canadian Cancer Society called on the federal government to ban the use and export of asbestos.

But the Canadian government says chrysotile fibres are far less potent or harmful than most traditional forms of asbestos that are no longer mined or used in Canada. At low levels and following proper safety rules, studies have shown chrysotile poses a minimal health risk, said a spokesman for Natural Resources Canada.

Canada makes an effort to promote the safe use of chrysotile in the 65 countries that import it.

"Canada believes that a general ban on chrysotile would drive countries from a useful product whose risks are well known and can be managed through controlled use, to substitutes that can be poorly regulated," the spokesman said n in a statement. "Chrysotile can provide cost-effective products to developing countries."

While Canada has been exporting asbestos to India for decades, Joshi said those exports are increasing thanks to India's construction boom.

Winnipeg NDP MP Pat Martin, a longtime anti-asbestos crusader who knows Joshi, said Canada is an "international pariah" for exporting about 200,000 tonnes of asbestos a year to developing countries and for crusading to keep the substance off the international list of hazardous materials.

"It is perhaps our greatest shame internationally," Martin said. "Most developed nations have banned asbestos in all its forms, yet we continue to seek out new markets in developing nations and Third World countries where health and safety rules are non-existent or not enforced."

Joshi said few physicians in India are aware of the telltale signs of asbestosis -- the chronic lung inflammation that results after exposure to asbestos particles. The cancer caused by asbestos, mesothelioma, is also difficult to track, since it can take up to 30 years to manifest in the body.

About 100,000 people die worldwide each year from mesothelioma.

Barry Castleman, a U.S.-based environmental consultant, said inhaling asbestos particles while walking past a construction zone or working in a building undergoing renovations is enough to deposit particles in the lungs.

Proponents argue that the chrysotile fibres Canada sells dissolve in the lungs faster than other kinds of asbestos, making them less likely to stimulate cancer. However, Castleman disputes the idea that chrysotile is less dangerous.

"It's baffling that Canada would be involved in this activity which, for a nation, it's criminal," he said, noting it shouldn't be difficult to shut down Canadian asbestos mines and offer pensions to the 800 miners working in the industry.

Both Joshi and Castleman accuse the Canadian government of operating a slick "propaganda machine" in developing countries that keeps local media, businesses and governments in the dark about the suffering the material causes.

Until someone steps up to deal with the problem, Joshi said more people will continue to die.

"They can continue with this dirty business."

jen.skerritt@freepress.mb.ca

Reporter Jen Skerritt is in India on a media fellowship from the Asia Pacific Foundation.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2007 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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