North American Asbestos Revolution 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



According to figures for global asbestos production, trade and consumption released by the United States Geological Survey for 2006, the use of asbestos in North America is of little consequence to the asbestos industry; in 2006 the U.S. and Canada consumed minus 48,352 metric tons; Canada exported more asbestos than it produced and the U.S. exported more than it imported.1 Even in the absence of national asbestos bans, there is minimal use of the deadly fiber in these industrialized countries. Nevertheless, asbestos practices and debates in both jurisdictions remain of intense interest to vested interests. For decades, Canadian asbestos lobbyists have exploited the political fragility of the Canadian federation to stifle open debate on asbestos; however, their ability to silence their opponents and dictate that only pro-asbestos messages are broadcast is eroding. Whilst the continuing lack of a U.S. asbestos ban remains of comfort to the asbestos public relations machine, recent developments on the West Coast indicate that mobilization of American asbestos victims will, once again, force this issue onto the political agenda.

One can only imagine the mounting frustration of Québec's asbestos lobbyists as their virtual control of the asbestos debate in French-speaking Canada slips from their grasp. If it is not pesky epidemiologists from Québec's Institute of Public Health detailing the province's epidemic of asbestos cancer, 2 or a national politician – Liberal Party Leader Michael Ignatieff – telling students at Québec's Bishop's University of his opposition to the asbestos industry,3 it is the upholding of a complaint over pro-asbestos bias in a TV news broadcast.4

A seven-page ruling released on October 15, 2009 by the Ombudsman of Radio-Canada, Julie Miville-Dechne, relates to the September 1, 2009 transmission of the program Téléjournal.5 One critic of the broadcast said it was “deliberately skewed”; the Ombudsman agreed it was unfair: “Le reportage manquait de'equilibre.” (“The report lacks balance.”6) With the program's total lack of input from impartial experts, informed public health specialists or critics of the asbestos industry, the solidly pro-asbestos message conveyed by asbestos defenders went unchallenged. The only voices heard during the 5 minute piece transmitted at 10 p.m. came from asbestos stakeholders including:

  • asbestos industry lobbyist Clement Godbout, Chrysotile Institute;
  • trade unionist Jean Larose, the Syndicat des Metallos (Metalworkers' Union);
  • Mayor of the town “Asbestos” Jean-Philippe Blanchand;
  • Directors of Québec asbestos mining companies: Simon Dupéré (LAB Chrysotile) and Bernard Coulombe (Jeffrey mine).

The information conveyed by these spokesmen was solidly pro-industry; the defences they advanced were well-worn, self-serving excuses long ago discredited by major international agencies, 40+ national governments, independent scientists and doctors.7

The Ombudsman pointed out that the speakers expressed a point of view and not facts:

“Ici, on n'est pas en présence de faits. Il s'agit d'un point de vue qui mérite d'tre entendu mais qui est chaudement contesté. Rappelons notamment qu'au-delà du lobby pétrochimique, la France a évoqué des raisons de santé publique pour bannir l'amiante. (les maladies pulmonaires du personnel du campus universitaire de Jussieu, isolé à l'amiante, ont fait scandale).”

English Translation (by author, using Babel):

Here one is not in the presence of facts. It is about a point of view which deserves to be heard but which is hotly disputed. Let us recall in particular that beyond the petrochemical lobby, France evoked public health concerns for its decision to ban asbestos (the chest diseases of personnel from the Jussieu University Campus, insulated with asbestos, caused the (French asbestos) scandal.

As if this was not enough bad news for one week, developments south of the border also bode ill for the industry. While federal momentum to adopt a ban on asbestos in the United States seems to have stalled temporarily, progress is being made elsewhere. On October 20, 2009, the California beach front community of Manhattan Beach weighed into the asbestos debate when it unanimously passed Resolution 6223 to “repeal the designation of serpentine, the host of asbestos, as the official state rock (of California).”


Linda Reinstein (centre left) with Manhattan Beach Council members.

As Andrew Schneider explained in his blog the next day:

“California has a killer state rock. No, really. Its official state rock is serpentine which usually contains asbestos, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people (7,000 in California since 2007)… The Manhattan Beach resolution represents the first official request to the California legislature to remove the rock.”8

The leading U.S. asbestos victims' group – the Asbestos Diseases Awareness Organization (ADAO) – welcomed this development. In a press release issued on October 21, ADAO Co-founder and Executive Director Mrs. Linda Reinstein, who is based in Manhattan Beach, said:

“California has the dubious distinction of being the state with the highest recorded number of asbestos-related deaths and the death toll will continue until the United States Congress passes legislation banning asbestos. We have a strategic plan in place and look forward to working with asbestos victims and their families (and our partners) … as we move throughout California to repeal serpentine as the state rock.”9

The ADAO's “Drop the Rock” campaign has both short and long-term goals: amongst the former is the repeal of serpentine as the state rock; amongst the later is building awareness of the asbestos hazard locally, regionally, nationally and globally. Reflecting on the motivation for her ban asbestos advocacy, Mrs. Reinstein said:

“The Reinstein family is no different to families in Japan, Thailand and China who have lost a loved one to asbestos. In 2004, 2006 and 2009 the ADAO took part in asbestos victims' conferences in Tokyo, Bangkok and Hong Kong. I had the opportunity to speak with victims whose families had been devastated by their asbestos loss. We shared an anger at the avoidable deaths that caused so much heartache and we shared the determination to turn our asbestos anger into activism.

'Dropping the Rock' would be a great achievement in California, national asbestos prohibitions would be a huge step for the United States and implementing a global asbestos ban would mark a new era for human beings everywhere.”

October 24, 2009


1 According to a report on Asbestos – 2008 [ADVANCE RELEASE] by Robert Virta (U.S.G.S.): “U.S. apparent consumption declined to 1,460 metric tons (t) in 2008 from 1,730 t in 2007. World production was 2.09 million metric tons (Mt) in 2008, a decrease from 2.30 Mt. in 2007.”

2 INSPQ. Descriptive Epidemiology of the Principal Asbestos-Related Diseases in Québec,1981-2004. May 2007.



5 Canada's public radio and television broadcaster is the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation ; in French, it is called la Société Radio-Canada.

6 Author's translation.

7 The author's translation of the industry propaganda advanced in this broadcast follows:

  • Asbestos, a dangerous product, can be used safely under controlled conditions;
  • The Chrysotile Institute informs its clients of the safe use of asbestos; however, in Europe asbestos has been banned under pressure from the petrochemical industry which wants to sell its (asbestos-free) replacement products;
  • The industry is responding to the needs of emerging countries which need to build their infrastructure. In Canada we use little asbestos as we build much less;
  • If Canada stops exporting asbestos, nothing will change. Other countries which don't inform customers about the safe use of asbestos will take advantage of the situation;


9 and



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