Hiding the risk of asbestos

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It is bewildering that successive Canadian governments would risk an international black eye to protect the market of a relatively small industry that exports a known carcinogen. Chrysotile asbestos has fallen out of favour for use as an insulator and fire-retardant in Canada, but it is the economic mainstay of Thetford Mines, Que., the hometown of federal Industry Minister Christian Paradis.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/06/2011 (4068 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It is bewildering that successive Canadian governments would risk an international black eye to protect the market of a relatively small industry that exports a known carcinogen. Chrysotile asbestos has fallen out of favour for use as an insulator and fire-retardant in Canada, but it is the economic mainstay of Thetford Mines, Que., the hometown of federal Industry Minister Christian Paradis.

That is the only explanation imaginable for the Harper government’s decision to oppose, at a summit in Switzerland this week, yet again, an attempt to put chrysotile asbestos on a hazardous materials index of the UN’s Rotterdam Convention. The listing would warn importing countries of its associated health risks and those nations could block its entry.

The long-standing fight to hang on to the chunk of the market for the sole operating Canadian asbestos mine has transcended political stripes, with both Liberal and Conservative regimes blocking attempts to regulate it. The Tories have had some rearguard fire lately, with retired MP Chuck Strahl, who is battling lung cancer caused by asbestos, publicly lobbying against the free flow of asbestos.

DALE CUMMINGS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS 06 July 2010 edit dinky A Dale Cummings Winnipeg Free Press BROKEN MAPLE LEAF CANADA

It is estimated that, world-wide, 90,000 people die of asbestos-related disease every year. A vigorous international lobby has focused its sights on Canada — now the lone voice standing in the way of the required consensus — to control its trade through the Rotterdam Convention. Canada exported asbestos to some 80 countries in 2006. Concerns are raised over the unprotected workers who are using asbestos unaware of its risks.

The import warning is a reasonable precaution that most people would see as ethically compelling. Adequate labelling of risks forewarn of necessary precautions that can be taken. That raises awareness generally and gives labour and health groups, especially in developing countries, greater heft to advocate for workers and citizens.

This is petty politics trumping morality. The industry is legitimately wary that indexing of asbestos may reduce trade, and it will increase costs of business. Prime Minister Stephen Harper should remember his first responsibility is to the country as a whole, and his government’s conduct in Switzerland damages Canada’s international reputation. This decision merely saves the industry a cost of doing business responsibly, at the evident expense of the country’s self-respect.

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