Make India Asbestos Free

Make India Asbestos Free
For Asbestos Free India

Journal of Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI). Asbestos Free India campaign of BANI is inspired by trade union movement and right to health campaign. BANI has been working since 2000. It works with peoples movements, doctors, researchers and activists besides trade unions, human rights, environmental, consumer and public health groups. BANI demands criminal liability for companies and medico-legal remedy for victims.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Hazardous hypocrisy

A curious liking for asbestos


The Economist, 23 October 2008

FOR more than a decade, workers in hazmat suits have been boring into the walls and ceilings of Canada’s parliament buildings to remove tonnes of asbestos insulation. This tedious and expensive work is to protect the health of lawmakers and their staff: even limited exposure to asbestos can cause lung cancer or mesothelioma, a deadlier cancer. These risks have prompted most rich countries, and many poor ones, to ban all forms of asbestos.

But they have not stopped Canada from exporting large quantities of the mineral to developing countries, especially in Asia, nor discouraged the government from paying to promote its use abroad. This is “corporate welfare for corporate serial killers”, says Pat Martin, a former asbestos miner who is one of the few members of parliament to denounce the hypocrisy.

Campaigners hope that it will end at a meeting in Rome, starting on October 27th, of the Rotterdam Convention, a registry compiled by the United Nations of hazardous substances which require “prior informed consent” before they can be exported from one country to another. Canada has lobbied vigorously to prevent chrysotile, or “white” asbestos—the only kind still mined—from being included.

The industry argues that this carries little risk of pleural mesothelioma, a cancer of the lungs’ protective lining. It also claims that if chrysotile is used in high-density materials, in which the asbestos is bound together with concrete or resin, the risk of lung cancer is minimal. But medical experts, including the World Health Organisation, disagree. They say that in practice it is impossible to prevent carcinogenic dust being released when chrysotile asbestos is handled, and want it listed as hazardous under the convention.

At the convention’s previous meeting in 2006 Canada led a select group of countries—including India, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Peru and Ukraine—in blocking a listing. The reward for Canada lending its boy-scout reputation to this cause was that the other countries would “tolerate higher-cost Canadian producers” and thereby allow its asbestos industry to remain profitable, according to a ministerial briefing-note obtained by a researcher.

Fewer than a thousand Canadians still work in asbestos mines, down from 7,000 in the 1970s. The remaining active mines are in Quebec. The industry’s labour battles, and role in the approval of workplace safety laws, have given it an almost sacred status in the province and made it politically untouchable. Even health officials are wary of criticising it, although mesothelioma rates in Quebec are among the highest in the world. “It’s a very touchy question,” says Louise de Guire of the province’s public-health institute. “There’s a certain pride in the industry, even if not many people survive off it any more.”

Things may be about to change. This month two dozen public-health experts issued an open letter calling for chrysotile to be listed under the convention. This followed calls from Canada’s main labour federation for an end to asbestos mining and exports. Comparing the asbestos industry to arms traders, the Canadian Medical Association Journal said the government was taking part in a “death-dealing charade” by arguing that chrysotile can be safely used in the developing world.

The political timing is propitious for a ban. Stephen Harper, the prime minister, has just won a second term for his Conservative minority government. He owes no favours to Quebec’s voters, who gave him no extra seats, or to Jean Charest, the province’s premier and a former ally, who railed against the federal government during the campaign.

Officials say they have yet to decide what position they will adopt at the Rome meeting. If they drop their opposition to chrysotile being listed as a hazardous material, that would be the first step towards banning it, fears Clément Godbout, who heads the Chrysotile Institute, a government-funded lobby group formerly known as the Asbestos Institute. That, say campaigners, is precisely the point.

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