Asbestos: An Indefensible Export

Asbestos was first discovered in North America in the province of Quebec in 1860. By 1898, the medical community was suspecting it was harmful to health.

Ever since its link to cancer and lung diseases was established, asbestos has been in the news on a recurring basis.  Recently, concerns have been raised about why Canada continues to engage in the trade of this dangerous substance.

 

Why did it take so long to raise suspicion?  

Asbestos-related lung diseases are slow to emerge, taking 30 years or more to develop, depending on the kind of  illness.  By the 1950s, occupational disease studies were underway that eventually established that workplace exposure levels of asbestos were sufficient to cause these diseases.
Mesothelioma currently accounts for the deaths of approximately 200 Canadians per year with new cases emerging at a rate of approximately 500 per year.  Each case is estimated to cost over $500,000 in healthcare expenses and lost
earnings.

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral, found naturally in six forms.  The chrysotile form is the main type that is used commercially now, primarily for cement products, brake linings and roofing products.  Since 1975, global demand for asbestos has dropped dramatically as many countries have restricted or completely banned its use in response to concern about asbestos-related illnesses.  The impact of this drop in demand has resulted in the elimination of Canada’s chrysotile asbestos mining industry, which began around 1878 and ended in 2011 with the closure of the final two mines located in Quebec.

The end of asbestos mining in Canada did not end of our affair with asbestos, however.  As recently as last year, Canada was still importing raw asbestos and asbestos-containing products such as brake pads, pipes, tiles and clothing in amounts totaling about $4.9 million.   For context, $4.9 million represents about 0.00069 % of Canada’s annual imports.  Given its tiny contribution to the economy and the alternatives available, you have to wonder why it is necessary to bring asbestos into the country.

Add to this the human and financial costs of other asbestos-related diseases, and this quickly becomes an exposure we cannot afford.

In 2012, the Canadian federal government agreed to end its support of foreign asbestos mining and to stop opposing efforts to have asbestos listed as a dangerous substance as part of an international effort to protect people in developing countries from exposure under the Rotterdam Convention.  But it continues to defend asbestos imports, saying asbestos is only dangerous when exposed to the air.  Unfortunately, that can easily occur when asbestos-containing products are damaged, and at that point, there is no safe level of exposure.

It’s time for the Canadian federal government to do the right thing and ban asbestos.

With notes from: