Where Does Canada Really Stand on Asbestos? – Part 2

While those in favor of adding chrysotile to the UN watch list are very vocal, asbestos industry experts urged Canadian representatives participating in the Rotterdam Convention talks to look at both sides of the story impartially. Scientific studies and evidence, not editorials, should be examined, they said.

The president of the Jeffery Mine Inc., Bernard Coulombe, says that the nations at the UN who want to put chrysotile asbestos on the UN watch list do not really care about the health and safety of those in developing nations. He argues that big oil is at the heart of their arguments. Coulombe says that inclusion on the UN watch list, while not a ban or restriction, is the first step toward a total ban. Once asbestos is banned worldwide, countries will be forced to use much more expensive petroleum-based synthetic fibers. These are still relatively new, compared to chrysotile, and their long-term safety has yet to be established. Coulombe holds that these petroleum-based synthetics could be more hazardous than asbestos.

He notes that, “Countries that produce them are those that want them banned, essentially European countries.” Coulombe says that unlike the pesticides, which make up most of the substance on the UN watch list, chrysotile is a naturally occurring product, mined right out of the ground. It cannot be banned in the same manner artificially created materials are. Other forms of asbestos are already on the list, but chrysotile is not even though exposure to it can lead to asbestosis , a scarring of the lungs, and the deadly cancer mesothelioma . While some argue that the safe use of chrysotile overseas is impossible for Canada to regulate, Coulombe says that there is an agreement between the Canadian government and those of importing nations to ensure the safety in use and handling of exported chrysotile. Clement Godbout of the Montreal-based Chrysotile Institute stands with Coulombe’s stance that the drive behind the proposed inclusion on the watch list of chrysotile is the petroleum-based synthetics industry.

He wants there to be more testing of chrysotile alternatives before a decision is made. Since these studies have not been done, he said those attending the UN Rotterdam Convention the week of October 27 through 31, 2008, had no more information than they did in 2006 when they denied the inclusion of chrysotile asbestos on the watch list. The goal of the Chrysotile Institute is to ensure that asbestos products are used safely in Canadian products and in those meant for export. By keeping the fibers enclosed in cement or other solid product, there is no way for them to become airborne and pose a hazard, Godbout argues. Canada’s exports of chrysotile asbestos have been cut in half from a high of 15 percent of the world’s exports. Coulombe does not foresee a future for the Canadian chrysotile industry beyond the next century.