Members of the Canadian delegation blocked a UN resolution that would list chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous material. The resolution, called the Rotterdam Convention, lists several grades of hazardous materials. The convention rules stated that materials labeled as “Annex III” would compel exporters of toxic chemicals to warn importers of the hazards involved with the material. The resolution would also give countries that import dangerous substances the right to refuse to allow the material into their borders if they did not have adequate safety precautions in place.
Michael Stanley-Jones, a UN spokesman for the meeting, said that Canada and several other countries, including three former Soviet states, would not vote to approve listing “white” asbestos in the hazardous materials list. Mr. Stanley-Jones also said that the listing of asbestos would be tabled until the next meeting of the trade treaty signees in two years.
Labor unions, worker safety organizations and environmental activists have been working for several years to stop Canada’s exportation of asbestos. Only two asbestos mines, both in Quebec, continue to produce the dangerous fibers. Although the mines employ only about thee hundred people in small towns near Montreal, the issue of closing the mines and enforcing stricter safety regulations has created a political firestorm in Canada’s only French-speaking province.
Some pro-asbestos concerns in Quebec paint the argument as a case of English-speakers attempting to enforce their standards on independent-minded Quebec. However, Quebec exports more asbestos than it uses. Both federal and provincial officials have worked to remove the material from schools and government buildings around the country, including the Prime Minister’s residence in Ottawa. Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended the use and exportation of asbestos when he campaigned in Quebec leading up to last May’s general election.
The people who depend on the mines for their incomes believe that chrysotile can be used safely if workers employ the proper precautions. In countries that import asbestos for their shipbuilding industries, such as India, Indonesia and Pakistan, most workers do not have access to breathing masks, special coveralls, or other protective gear. Governments in those countries also either do not have adequate safety regulations in place or do not have the resources to enforce them.
A report from the World Health Organization estimates that more than 90,000 people will die of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related disorders this year. Most industrialized nations have either banned or severely restricted the use of asbestos, which was prevalent in the mid-1900s as a source of insulation and fireproofing.
Numerous scientific studies have established that asbestos exposure can lead to a rare form of lung cancer called mesothelioma. As a worker inhales asbestos dust, microscopic fibers work their way through the lung tissue and into the pleural mesothelium, the protective layer around the lungs. The fibers alter the cells and turn them into malignant tumors. The disease can lay dormant for decades, but it is often fatal by the time doctors can diagnose the problem. Most patients rarely live more than two years after they receive their mesothelioma diagnosis.