Canadian decision brings global asbestos ban nearer



“A global ban on asbestos is closer now than ever before”, announced yesterday Fiona Murie, the leading health and safety campaigner for the Building and Woodworkers International.

Speaking to Equal Times, Murie celebrated a recent announcement by the Canadian government to stop opposing the inclusion of white asbestos as an international dangerous substance.

The decision ends a long-standing objection to include the material to the UN´s Rotterdam Convention, a multilateral treaty on hazardous chemicals.

The World Health Organization estimates that 107,000 people die every year from illnesses related to the mineral. By 2030, it will have taken as many as 10 million lives around the world.

All types of chrysotile – or white asbestos – fibres are known to cause severe respiratory disease and lung cancer such as the incurable mesothelioma, which is caused by inhalation of asbestos particles in the workplace or at home.

The toxic mineral has been banned in more than 45 countries, including the European Union member states.

Even though its use is still allowed in Canada, all traces of the substance are still being removed from many buildings, including the Parliament and the Prime Minister´s official home.

Last year, the Canadian government was accused of blocking an attempt to list chrysotile in the Rotterdam Convention, during a meeting in Geneva.

When India withdrew its renowned opposition, the world was on the verge of finally reaching an historic agreement if it hadn’t been for Canada’s refusal to backtrack.

If the substance was included in the convention, exporters would have to use proper labelling, include directions on safe handling and inform purchasers of restrictions, which could potentially reduce sales.

For almost a century, Canada was the world´s largest producer of what was once called the “magic mineral”. In 1973, at its peak, 1.69 million tonnes were explored mainly for exports.

The North American nation is still the world’s fifth-largest exporter of chrysotile asbestos. Buyers include countries such as India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, where safety protections are scarce.

“For many years, Canada has been spreading pro-asbestos information and financing lobbying groups such as the Chrysotile Institute. This propaganda used to make much harder our job to convince importing countries of its risks,” said Fiona Murie.

As Canadian production dwindled, so did the funding of pro-asbestos advocacy. In May, the Chrysotile Institute was shut down.

In a further development, last July, the industry received what could be its death statement, as the newly elected government in Quebec has cancelled a loan that would revive the Jeffrey Mine – located near the town of Asbestos – the last of its kind still in operation in the country.

As a compensation for the communities affected by the imminent closing, the federal government announced an investment of US$50 million for economic diversification in the area.

For the Canadian Labour Congress, the job, however, is not yet done.

“We urge the Canadian government to press other asbestos-producing nations like Russia and China to follow the same path and to stop opposing the listing of chrysotile asbestos in the International Rotterdam Convention,” said the trade union in a press statement.