Members of the international scientific community are calling on Quebec Premier Jean Charest to ban the export of asbestos from his province. A letter signed by more than one hundred scientists representing twenty-eight countries was sent to Premier Charest, reiterating longstanding scientific findings that asbestos exposure can lead to mesothelioma, a rare and often fatal form of cancer that targets the fluid sacs around the lungs. The scientists sent the letter to Premier Charest in response to his visit to India, one of the leading importers of Quebec’s asbestos.
One of the last active asbestos mines in the world is in Thetford Mines, Quebec, and the asbestos industry carries a high level of political clout within both the provincial government of Quebec and the federal government in Ottawa. Bernard Coulombe, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian asbestos mining firm Mine Jeffrey and a political backer of Premier Charest, is leading an effort to expand the Thetford Mines facility, in spite of the pressures from the medical community and environmental activists, as well as the worldwide recession and decreased demand for the dangerous substance.
Mr. Coulombe is also a member of the Chrysotile Institute, an industry group that dismisses the scientific community’s claims of the links between asbestos exposure and the increased incidence of mesothelioma. The Institute has stated that asbestos is safe to handle if workers take the proper precautions. Many leading environmental and worker safety groups, however, have maintained that there is no “safe” level of asbestos exposure.
Dr. Fernand Turcotte, a professor at Quebec’s University of Laval and a staunch proponent of the asbestos ban, said that the provincial government should sever its political ties with the industry. Dr. Turcotte also said that the premier should understand that the issue of Quebec’s asbestos exports creates “a worldwide problem”. Many developing countries, such as India, Bangladesh and Indonesia, often import asbestos as part of their ship deconstruction industry.
According to the letter, industries within the province use almost none of the asbestos material mined from its own soil. Instead, they ship it to developing countries, where worker safety laws and environmental protection regulations are much less stringent than in North America and Western Europe. Canada exported more than 170,000 metric tons of chrysotile asbestos, brining in more than $100 million dollars to the country’s economy.
The letter also mentioned the political and legal pressures that Premier Charest was exerting on scientists in India who had spoken out about the hazards of asbestos. The scientists said that they were “disturbed” at the fact that the Quebec government had issued letters to the Indian scientific community threatening them with lawsuits if they continued to publish papers on the connection between exposure to chrysotile asbestos and the advent of lung disease later in life.
In the letter, the scientists also cited statistics that showed that up to sixty percent of the work-related deaths in Canada were due to asbestos exposure. Kathleen Ruff, a spokesperson for the Environmental Health Trust and the Cancer Association of South Africa, said that Premier Charest should expect to see protests from labor unions, environmental activists and others denouncing the province’s exportation of asbestos.
Sources: Canadian Press, The Globe and Mail