Quebecs Asbestos Epiphany?
For most of the 20th century, asbestos stakeholders in the Canadian Province of Quebec were amongst the most vocal of all the vested interests in lobbying government administrations in Quebec City and Ottawa on behalf of the mineral they called white gold. Billions of dollars of asbestos profits were at stake as well as thousands of jobs at the mines and in the ancillary services which supported them. There was an unspoken but well-observed oath of Omerta in the asbestos monotowns of Asbestos and Thetford Mines, whereby anyone injured or critical of the asbestos sector took their experiences to the grave or kept their mouths shut. When a few local people announced plans to hold the inaugural public meeting of an asbestos victims association in the mining region, they were threatened with physical violence. Unsurprisingly the association folded.
In the Saturday May 22, 2021 issue of the Montreal Journal a daily, French language tabloid newspaper published in Montreal a series of articles was published which revealed just one repercussion of Quebecs former asbestos blindness: the presence of 1,000 kilometers of asbestos-cement pipes in its water delivery system.1 Explaining that the policies of international agencies and authorities in North America were based on old science, reporter Anne Caroline Desplanques reviewed work by US scientists who found evidence of widespread migration of fibers to various organs and Italian academics who identified asbestos fibers in the colon and gallbladder of cancer patients. According to the precautionary principle, the toxic network which delivered drinking water to millions of Quebeckers living and working in 200 cities should be remediated.2
In the article entitled Concerns Around the World, the situation in Quebec was considered within the context of experiences from Norway, the US, France, New Zealand and the Canadian Provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.3 In multiple cases, the use of asbestos-cement pipes had been implicated in elevated incidences of asbestos-related diseases. The consequences of breakages and deterioration of asbestos networks in Norway, New Zealand and the US were high levels of asbestos fibers in the drinking water as well as exorbitant and unaffordable bills for municipalities responsible for the replacement of toxic water networks. In Edmonton, Alberta and Regina, Saskatchewan, civic authorities had instituted periodic testing of drinking water to monitor fibers levels while in France, the High Council of Public Health declared in 1997 that the general population is potentially exposed to asbestos by ingestion of water from the distribution network which contained asbestos-cement pipes. To address the situation, asbestos audits were being carried out to identify toxic pipes and components, and periodic monitoring of the water was being conducted.
Work carried out to remediate asbestos-cement water delivery systems in the US, Pakistan. France, South Africa, Malaysia, New Zealand and elsewhere highlighted the negligence of both the Provincial and Federal Governments,4 neither of which had set standards or taken steps to monitor the presence of asbestos fibers in drinking water. This is about to change according to the last of the May 22 articles.5 Quebecs Minister of the Environment Benoit Charette has pledged, as a preventive action, to take steps to evaluate the presence of asbestos fibers in the water. As there was no Canadian standard, Quebec would be following the US protocol which imposed a maximum standard of 7 million asbestos fibers per liter of water. Although, the testing regime has not yet been delineated, the Minister indicated that priority would be given to cities with the highest concentration of asbestos-cement pipes. Monitoring of the water will, if things go according to plan, begin at the end of 2022. Watch this space!
May 26, 2021
1 Fortin, JL. Votre verre deau, avec ou sans amiante? [Your glass of water, with or without asbestos?] May 22, 2021.
2 Desplanques, AC. La science na pas tranché sur la dangerosité [Science has not decided on the dangerousness]. May 22, 2021.
3 Blais, A., Desplanques, AC. Concerns Around the World. May 22, 2021.
4 Nineteen per cent of water distribution pipes in Canada are made of asbestos-cement.
5 Blais, A., Desplanques, AC. Québec traquera lamiante dans leau [Quebec will monitor asbestos in the water]. May 22, 2021.