International Experts: Canadian Government Burying Asbestos Study

Health Canada commissioned an international study on the cancer risks posed by asbestos exposure – but health ministers have kept the study under wraps since its completion in March of 2008, claiming they need more time for review. Now, two of the internationally-acclaimed experts on asbestos and public health are pressuring the federal health minister to release the results of their research, saying that it is unfair that the public cannot access the material in the report even as political figures are using the confidential material to undermine its conclusions among Canada’s political class. Leslie Stayner is the head of the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois, and has written a letter to Health Canada decrying the delay, as has Trevor Ogden, chairman of the expert panel convened to conduct the study.

Stayner wrote “It is simply unacceptable for this report to continue to be withheld from the public, while individuals who have seen the report and our comments make erroneous allegations about what it contains to suit their political objectives.” A member of Canada’s House of Commons, MP Andre Bellavance, has argued on the House floor that Canada should not ban chrysotile asbestos, implying that the new study supports the view that chrysotile is less harmful than other forms of asbestos, a conclusion Stayner rejects as inaccurate, saying that their study was asked only to examine chrysotile exposure risks and how to assess the risk of cancer. Stayner wrote that while his group did not specifically address whether there were safe uses for chrysotile asbestos, “from a pragmatic point of view, my answer to this question would be that [safe use] is simply not possible.” Alone among developed nations, Canada continues to mine and process asbestos, exporting most of its annual production the developing nations like India, Pakistan, and Indonesia for use in their construction industries.

Canada has spent $20 million in the past twenty years promoting asbestos exports, despite the near-universal condemnation of asbestos among labor organizations, health regulatory bodies, and cancer research institutions. About 700 people still work in Canada’s chrysotile asbestos industry, which is centered in Quebec. Quebec has one of the highest rates of malignant mesothelioma in the world.