Pat Martin, a member of the Canadian Parliament from the country’s New Democratic Party, has been a staunch opponent of the country’s asbestos industry for most of his term in office. Recently, he engaged in a verbal battle with the country’s Minister of Natural Resources, Christian Paradis, over the Ministry’s support for Quebec-based asbestos firms and the Chrysotile Institute, an asbestos-industry lobbying group.
At a meeting of one of Canada’s natural resource committees attended by both men, Mr. Martin called the asbestos industry a “corporate serial killer”. He also confronted Mr. Paradis on the government’s support of the country’s asbestos mines, which exports more than one hundred thousand tons of the dangerous mineral annually, while banning its use in the domestic production of insulation, tiling and fireproofing construction materials.
Mr. Martin also criticized the government for taking on projects to remove asbestos from Parliament buildings – projects that cost millions in Canadian taxpayers’ money – while continuing to promote the export of the mineral to developing countries like India, Bangladesh and Indonesia. He said that these two conflicting actions showed an apparent hypocrisy by the government on its asbestos policies and that it was “ethically” and “morally” wrong to export the hazardous substance while prohibiting the use of asbestos within its own borders.
Mr. Paradis, who hails from the regions of eastern Quebec that still house the country’s only extant asbestos mines, defended the use of the substance. He maintained that, as long as workers employ the proper safety precautions, that the “white” asbestos (also known as “chrysotile”) extracted from mines in Quebec is safer to use than the “brown” asbestos (also called “amphibole”) in construction materials.
Mr. Paradis also said that the past uses of asbestos allowed the dangerous fibers to come loose and cause health hazards. He stated that current uses of the product, including its use as a bonding agent for concrete, prevent the loose fibers from becoming airborne, where workers can inhale them and they can irritate the lungs. When the fibers invade the lung tissue, they can cause malignant mesothelioma, a form of cancer that attacks the fluid sacs around the lungs.
The disagreement stems from a government grant given to the Chrysotile Institute, a group that studies the effects of asbestos and works as a lobbying agent for the Quebec asbestos industry. Mr. Martin requested that the government either decline the grant application or, at least, reduce the amount of the grant from its annual C$250,000 (US$245,000), calling it “corporate welfare for corporate serial killers”.
Mr. Paradis insisted that the Chrysotile Institute is geared toward studying the safe use of asbestos and does not involve itself in lobbying efforts. However, the Institute’s director, Clement Godbout, is a registered lobbyist and has repeatedly discussed Institute-sponsored studies that promote the safety of chrysotile asbestos. He also said that the Institute is dedicated to educating workers on the safe use of asbestos in developing nations.
Officials with the Canadian Cancer Society have also sided with Mr. Martin. The Society sent a letter to the natural resources committee asking that they redirect the funds earmarked for the Chrysotile Institute toward cancer research and efforts to ban asbestos. Several industrialized nations, including Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and most member nations of the European Union, have banned the use of asbestos.
Sources: Vancouver Sun, Toronto Sun