Canadian Asbestos: A Global Concern – Synopsis
Since the late 19th century, the lucrative exploitation of Canadian chrysotile (white asbestos) has made this mineral a much-valued natural resource, earning it the nickname: white gold. The gulf between French and English-speaking Canada enabled Qu‚bec-based asbestos interests to take advantage of the political vulnerability of the country to secure high levels of support from Governments in Ottawa and Qu‚bec and some trade unions; the health of asbestos workers and the pollution of the Canadian environment were ignored in the rush to turn white gold into hard cash. As international opposition to the continued use of chrysotile increased, industry developed strategies to counter negative publicity including:
"direct suppression of data from industry-sponsored research, selective publication of research findings, and the systematic use of scientific knowledge to create uncertainty. The industry was successful because all too many scientists, including editors of journals, were more than willing to ally themselves with industry and to use their professional status as scientific experts to support industry policies."1
Canadian diplomats and embassy staff acted as unpaid industry salesmen, lobbying foreign governments and preparing confidential reports on asbestos developments which were sent back to the "home office" in Qu‚bec. Asbestos producers worldwide benefited from the successful propaganda campaign spear-headed by Team Canada, finding protection and communion under the "controlled use" umbrella.
Canadian asbestos stakeholders, used to ruling the roost, were incensed by news that a three-day conference Canadian Asbestos: A Global Concern was being planned by a coalition of Canadian and international groups to explore the repercussions of Canadian asbestos production and use in a public forum. Attempting to derail this event, they falsely claimed it was organized by the producers of asbestos alternative materials who had a vested interest in attacking their "innocent" fiber. Due to the commitment of the conference officers and organizing committee, the industry's intimidation failed and the conference proceeded unhindered.
Plenary sessions on September 12 & 13, 2003 were followed by a strategy session on September 14 for activists. An outstanding panel of international and Canadian scientists, academics, medical personnel, epidemiologists and campaigners exposed the nefarious ways in which industry has acted to defend its product; these include personal attacks by AI personnel on public health campaigners, pressure on international organizations such as the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization by asbestos-industry linked "experts" and legal threats by industry representatives such as the Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturer's Association (India). Joe Comartin, from the New Democratic Party, Elizabeth May and Daniel Green from the Sierra Club of Canada, Anthony Pizzino from the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Mary Cook, Jim Brophy and Margaret Keith from the OHCOW Clinics, Joan Kuyek from Mining Watch, Canada, Dr. Louise De Guire from the National Institute of Public Health in Qu‚bec and several individuals whose lives have been devastated by asbestos-related deaths of husbands, fathers or children presented graphic and conclusive evidence of the damage done by occupational and environmental exposure to chrysotile in Canada. Representatives from India, Japan, Lebanon and Peru described the appalling human tragedy caused by the use of Canadian chrysotile in their countries.
The Ottawa conference marked a watershed in the history of the global movement to ban asbestos. For the first time, a cross-section of Canadians, including trade unionists, publicly disavowed the Canadian Government's pro-chrysotile position. The formation of Ban Asbestos Canada as a direct result of the conference brings a new voice to the national debate on asbestos. As the flow of independent information increases and channels of communication develop through which victims can tell their stories, industry's control of the Canadian asbestos agenda will end. Shackled by increasing opposition at home, Canadian coordinators of the pro-chrysotile lobby will become less able to operate in the global arena; this will expose remaining exporters to the growing hostility of consumers and governments opposed to the use of asbestos. More than two thousand years ago, a Chinese philosopher said: "A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step." The developments described in the conference report are evidence of the giant strides being made toward our common goal: a universal ban on asbestos.
1 Braun L, Greene A, Manseau M et al.> Scientific Controversy and Asbestos - Making Disease Invisible. International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health.2003;9:194-205.
October 23, 2003