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.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Health Canada, Asbestos, and the 2009 Budget

It's now well established in the news that Health Canada deliberately and shamefully, if obediently (the CMA Journal thinks the orders came from the Prime Minister's Office), attempted to anti-democratically suppress an expert report concluding that chrysotile asbestos, the only type Canada still manufactures and which is exported because the domestic markets consider it too unsafe and carcinogenic for normal use, is after all carcinogenic and dangerous to human health. This would presumably take away our last good excuse for not agreeing to register chrysotile on international covenants banning free trade in such hazardous chemicals.

Plenty of other people have already hit on the key problem here, which is the hypocrisy of our foreign policy on this subject: pompous rhetoric proclaiming Canada the defender of health and security and good things everywhere, while we fight efforts to put asbestos on the Rotterdam Convention because it causes cancer and therefore must be restricted. The point is well-made and you can find it ably put forward by Dr. Dawg.

Instead, I'd like to look at a couple of other aspects of this story: the sorry state of Freedom of Information (which, if fixed, could have resolved this problem months ago), and the shameful fact that the government continues to dole out taxpayer money to industry-backed, psuedo-scientific agencies tasked with defending the safety of chrysotile asbestos - despite the fact that the government, if not we the people who elect that government, has known for at least a year that it is deadly:

Under-funding Access to Information means the public doesn't know about health risks:

First, the Freedom of Information issue. I've blogged on this before. Briefly, however, access to government information in Canada is bordering on pathetic. It's not necessarily a problem with law or even policy (though as someone who thinks all state secrecy is illegitimate, obviously I think those need to be totally rewritten). Rather, it's simply a matter of not following through. The government is simply not in compliance with the time limitations set on access to information procedures. Sometimes, in fact, they try to make the problem worse - as they did in a new directive at the same department, Health Canada, earlier this year. As I wrote at the time, the Act establishes a 30-day time limit to respond to a formal request. Realistically, it almost always takes several times that - even if the information isn't politically sensitive.

Normally when I raise this issue, it seems like a relatively unimportant one - after all, it's really just a question of how long researchers will have to be inconvenienced by bureaucratic foot-dragging and under-funding right? Not necessarily. Consider: it reportedly took ten months to obtain the report. That means that under-funding the Access to Information program effectively allowed the government to suppress a report nine months longer than it should have been allowed to, under Canadian law. We could have dealt with this issue last summer.

Following the Money to the Asbestos Institute

Interestingly, the government doesn't seem in much of a hurry to act on the conclusion of the report. That was so a year ago, when it decided that it could avoid acting by hiding the report from public view behind layers of protective, secretive, swaddling bureaucracy. And it is true now, as well. The Health Canada website continues to insist, as it has since the report was completed in secret, that chrysotile is a safer alternative to amphibole asbestos. The website implies that there is a cancer risk to the banned amphibole, but not to the chrysotile. In theory, the report was completed in the first place so that we'd know whether that was true. Health Canada got the report, realized it wasn't true, but kept their website the same after all. So much for openness and transparency, even where human lives are concerned.

More disturbing to me, though, is the government's relationship with the Chrysotile Institute.

The reality is a little different, of course. In 2003, the former CEO of the Institute, Gary Nash (who is also a former executive at the Mining Association of Canada) moved into Natural Resources Canada as Assistant Deputy Minister for Minerals and Metals. Subsequently, it became obvious that defending the known carcinogen asbestos was publicly untenable, so the organization rebranded itself, calling itself the Chrysotile Institute. That switchover paralleled the new emphasis on Quebecois asbestos being "chrysotile," and therefore "safe," asbestos. However, for some reason the old Asbestos Institute website still exists, and much of the text and layout has simply been pasted onto the new website, just replacing the word "asbestos" with "chrysotile" where necessary. For example, just compare this sample from the About pages (here vs. here):

Asbestos Institute - "With the cooperation of the governments of Canada and Québec, the Institute also works with governments in other countries to promote the standardization of asbestos regulations... The Institute publishes two different semi-annual newslettesr, as well as numerous documents and videos on health, safety and asbestos products."

Chrysotile Institute - "With the cooperation of the governments of Canada and Québec, the Institute also works with governments in other countries to promote the standardization of chrysotile regulations... The Institute publishes bimonthly newsletters, as well as numerous documents and videos on health, safety and chrysotile products."

The Chrysotile Institute remains reliant on government, which supplies about one-third of the funding. That was $250 000 per year in 2006, apparently, when Nash wrote a memorandum defending the program. Quebec pitches in the same amount, and together, since 1984, they've paid around $50 million to the Institute. Canada Economic Development disclosed the grant in 2007, and it's mentioned in budget papers as "fostering the safe, responsible use of chrysotile." But Nash's memo was secret (until it was released under Access to Information), and could therefore be more frank: the Institute was a "reference centre for an international network of producers and users" and "chrysotile mining communities" would suffer if the Institute's funding were cut.

It wasn't easy to put together a list of the directors for the Institute, because their website doesn't make it available. We know that one-third come from the federal government, presumably either civil servants or political appointees. The rest are apparently drawn from the industry and the asbestos mining unions - the two groups with the most direct stake in dismissing health reports. The president is Clément Godbout, a former United Steelworkers official. Another official is, or at least was, Denis Hamel, a federal civil servant sent over to the Institute in the 1990s।


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