Robert Hiltz, Postmedia News, Montreal Gazette, April 29, 2012
A decades-old pro-asbestos lobby group, currently funded by the Quebec government, will be shutting its doors after notifying the federal government of its plan to dissolve.
The Montreal-based Chrysotile Institute issued the notice in the Canada Gazette — the government’s official publication for announcing new laws and other public information. The institute, first formed in 1984, promotes the safe use of chrysotile asbestos on behalf of Canada’s asbestos mining industry.
NDP MP Pat Martin — a longtime critic of the asbestos industry and former miner himself — said the closing of the institute signals the “death knell” of asbestos mining in Canada.
“I see it as a real tipping point in the movement to get Canada out of the asbestos industry,” Martin said. “It’s just another demonstration of the death rattle of the asbestos industry in this country.”
He said he first learned of the institute’s intention to dissolve Saturday, International Workers’ Memorial Day — a day of commemoration for workers injured and killed around the globe.
“I’ve lost an awful lot of friends and colleagues to asbestos in my time as an asbestos miner and a carpenter in the building trades,” Martin said. “It was very poignant for me to learn that (the institute was closing) on the very day of mourning for injured and fallen workers with the flags at half mast — it was very, very fitting.”
Asbestos is a fibrous construction material used as insulation that has been linked to a number of lung diseases, including certain types of cancer.
In a number of Asian countries, including India, activists are increasingly holding demonstrations to protest asbestos exports because they say the substance is harming workers.
The Chrysotile Institute has long countered by saying that as long as asbestos is handled in a safe and controlled manner, it causes little risk to workers.
Canada’s asbestos industry is centred on two mines in Thetford Mines and Asbestos, both in Quebec — and both currently out of production for the first time in 130 years.
Quebec’s industry department has offered Balcorp Ltd. of Montreal a loan guarantee of $58 million if the company is able to find $25 million in financing to reopen the Jeffery Mine in Asbestos.
Kathleen Ruff, senior human-rights adviser to the independent research group the Rideau Institute, said the closing of the lobby group sends a signal to the international community that the industry is collapsing in Canada.
“It will be noticed all around the world because the Chrysotile Institute has been the key leader in pushing the interests in the asbestos industry around the world,” Ruff said.
The majority of asbestos mined in Canada is exported abroad to developing countries where asbestos regulations are less stringent. More than 50 countries have banned asbestos use.
Canada drew international scorn when it moved to block the listing of chrysotile asbestos on a United Nations list of restricted chemicals last June. Listing the material on Annex III of the UN’s Rotterdam Convention would have required “prior informed consent” to be provided by exporting countries.
Once an importing country is informed of the dangers of the material, it could refuse to accept the potentially cancer-causing substance if they felt they would be unable to handle it safely.
Under the convention protocol, chrysotile asbestos remained off Annex III because consensus was not reached between attending countries.
The European Parliament has chastised the Canadian government over its asbestos exports — as well as for the seal industry and oilsands development — and issued a news release expressing members’ concerns of the harm the substance caused to miners. The use and processing of asbestos is banned within the European Union.
Australia’s Upper House also passed a motion in November calling on its government to apply pressure to Canada to end its asbestos exporting.
The link between exposure to asbestos and other types of cancers is not clear, Health Canada says on its website. However, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, affiliated with the World Health Organization, has concluded after a full review of the scientific research that asbestos, including chrysotile asbestos mined in Quebec, “is carcinogenic in all its forms.”
Recently, asbestos research conducted at Montreal’s McGill University was called into question by a documentary aired on CBC television.
The university launched a preliminary review of the work of one of its retired professors following allegations the university had close ties to the industry.
Along with the documentary, a letter making similar allegations was sent to McGill officials by doctors, scientists and academics that included McGill faculty on the same day the documentary was aired. Both the letter and the film suggested researchers at McGill received funding from the industry to publish research that would make chrysotile asbestos seem less harmful to health than it is.
The World Health Organization estimates that globally, more than 100,000 people die from asbestos-related illnesses, including cancer, every year.
Emails to the Chrysotile Institute were not immediately returned Sunday and the phone number listed on the institute’s website was no longer in service.