Canada’s Stance on Chrysotile Asbestos Trade

Note: This article is hosted here for archival purposes only. It does not necessarily represent the values of the Iron Warrior or Waterloo Engineering Society in the present day.

What do the countries Canada, Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have in common? Answer: Two weeks ago, at a summit in Geneva, these four countries blocked the addition of chrysotile asbestos to the UN’s Rotterdam Convention on hazardous substances. Even India, one of the largest importers of asbestos, revised its previous stance and supported its addition to the list.

Asbestos is a family of long, fibrous crystals that are renowned for their durability and near indestructibility. Starting in the 19th century, asbestos was used extensively as insulation and in a variety of other applications. Its use was continued until the late 1900s when it was irrefutably determined to be carcinogenic. Since then, it has only been used by developing countries.

There are six types of asbestos grouped into two classes, serpentine and amphibole. Chrysotile asbestos is the only member of the serpentine class, while the amphibole class contains five variants of asbestos. While all forms of asbestos are known carcinogens, the amphibole forms of asbestos are particularly deadly and have been banned in many countries. Chrysotile has not been banned outright in some countries, including the US and Canada, although its use here is strictly regulated to the point that it is rarely utilized. Chrysotile is the only form of asbestos not yet included in the UN’s Rotterdam Convention.

The Rotterdam Convention is based on consensus; opposition from a single member nation is enough to block additions to the list. The proposed motion would have seen chrysotile added to Annex III of the convention. Substances on this list are not banned from export, but require exporters to fully warn recipients of any hazards. Recipient countries can then choose to block imports if they feel that they are not equipped to properly handle the substance. Recipients must then provide consent to the exporting nation in order for trade of the substance to proceed.

If you had to reread the previous paragraph, you are not alone. Even though the motion would have been blocked by the objections of the other three countries, Canadian delegates chose to publicly oppose a motion that would require exporters to fully inform recipients of the dangers of asbestos. Canada’s actions at the summit raise a number of puzzling questions, with the most notable being, “Why?”

The Canadian government’s stated position on this issue has often been vague. When asked prior to the summit how Canada would vote, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver stated, “I understand that there are some countries that are in fact opposed. So the question is moot.” Since the Rotterdam Convention requires a consensus of all nations and that there were other nations that intended to block the motion, he was correct in saying that Canada’s vote on this issue would not affect the result. In spite of its truth, his statement did not answer the question. The few questions that have actually received answers are usually accompanied with the longstanding statement, “we promote the safe and controlled use of chrysotile.” As of now, the government has not yet clarified how supporting safe use and opposition to hazard warnings are connected ideas, nor have they answered follow-up questions on the matter.

While the government’s stated position tells one story, its domestic actions tell another. In the last decade, Canada as a nation has spent tens of millions of dollars on asbestos removal across the country. Many of you may remember POETS and the C&D shutting down last year because of asbestos removal in the CPH Foyer. The government has also been active in asbestos removal; since the 90s, the government has spent millions of dollars on asbestos removal from many public buildings, including the Parliament buildings and 24 Sussex Drive.

Although you do not hear about it often, Canada’s asbestos industry was once very large. The miracle mineral was viewed as an important part of our mineral wealth, and the town of Asbestos, Quebec was even named after it. The industry has since shrunk due to almost non-existent demand in developed nations. The industry now employs no more than 500 people. Despite this, Canada is the 5th largest producer of chrysotile in the world, maintained entirely through exports to developing countries.

While many will be quick to assail the Harper government for the recent vote, it is only fair to note that they did not create this policy. Maintaining either a pro-asbestos or a neutral stance abroad while removing the material from buildings here at home has been Canada’s norm for decades. They are simply maintaining the course that was set and followed by previous governments, both Liberal and Conservative alike.

Defenders of the industry argue that chrysotile can be used safely with proper precautions. While this may be true, the regulations Canada has put in place to “safely use” chrysotile have all but eliminated its use in the country.  Here, exposures higher than one fibre per 10 cubic centimetres of air require the use of a breathing apparatus. Critics argue that these safety recommendations are rarely followed in developing countries, if ever. In 2009, the CBC’s Mellissa Fung filed a report from India showing several workers moving piles of asbestos with nothing but handkerchiefs tied across their faces. At those levels of exposure, those men will in all likelihood get asbestosis or cancer and eventually die from it. Unfortunately, Canada appears content to watch while many more follow.

I’m willing to admit that I first heard of this story from watching the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. One of his correspondents, Aasif Mandvi, did a report on the Canadian asbestos industry. Towards the end of the report, Mandvi interviewed the head of one of Canada’s last remaining Asbestos mines, Bernard Coulombe. Towards the end of the interview, Mandvi revealed his true feelings on the topic by using several choice words to address the man exporting the toxic material to India, where the interviewer, himself, has family. I’ve been watching the show for years, even before Mandvi made his first appearance on the show. I’ve seen him interview racists, convicted criminals and people who believe that he should be deported because he is a Muslim. Not once before have I seen him lose his composure and directly attack someone during an interview. I can understand that he is angry. His people are dying from the material we are selling them. If our country’s reputation is dying with them, shouldn’t we also be angry?