Canada hypocritical on a dangerous mineralSaturday, October 22, 2011
We all no doubt remember the rushing cloud of whitish dust which ballooned out over southern Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001, as the iconic towers of the World Trade Centre fell in on themselves after the planes commandeered by terrorists crashed into them. In addition to the almost 3000 people who died in the towers themselves, dozens of rescue workers and others caught in the cloud have since died from exposure to the dust. Many others developed serious lung problems which have severely affected their health and which will invariably shorten their lives.
That cloud was a toxic mixture of all the materials contained in those towering structures - gypsum wallboard, floor and ceiling tiles, disintegrated concrete, shredded paper, furniture, carpets and draperies, office chemicals, metal residue, even food blown to bits in the devastation and, saddest of all, people and their clothing. Perhaps most crucial was the 400 tonnes of asbestos, used as a fire-retardant.
Asbestos is a family of minerals known to mankind for more than 4500 years. It is fibrous in form and doesn't burn. In ancient Greece, they used it to make wicks for oil lamps, funeral shrouds and ceremonial tablecloths. Asbestos came into its own during the industrial revolution, when engineers harnessed its fire-proof, heat-resisting and insulating properties in their new steam-driven factories. Asbestos covered hot pipes, was woven into steam packing and drive belts, lined furnaces and was compressed into pads used in brakes and clutches.
Between the two world wars, its applications expanded widely in office buildings, schools, factories and elsewhere. In the cold countries it insulated hot water pipes feeding radiators, was put into walls and ceilings as insulation - both for heat and sound - and sprayed onto structural members as a barrier against fire. It found its way into electrical installations and domestic appliances. Until the 1980s houses were full of products containing asbestos - roofing shingles and underlay, exterior siding, insulation for pipes and boilers, caulking, wallboard, decorative plaster, stucco, acoustic ceiling tiles, vinyl floor tiles, appliance wiring and heat-resisting pads for ironing boards and hair dryers and even clay pottery.
But today, asbestos has fallen out of fashion in many parts of the world, since it has been proven time and again that in addition to its many desirable properties, it is a serious health hazard.
People who have been exposed over many years develop illnesses caused by the extremely tiny fibres. These fibres are several times thinner than a human hair, are practically indestructible and lodge themselves in the lining of the lung. Lungs can handle inhaled matter quite well if the particles or fibres are relatively large. Tiny hairs lining the upper parts of the lungs whip back and forth to sweep this contamination up into the throat where it can be spat out.
But tiny fibres such as asbestos find their way deep into the lungs, and in any case are far too small to be swept out by the defence mechanism. As they lodge in the lining, the body reacts by encasing each tiny fibre in a pocket. This walling-in process eventually ends up thickening the lung lining and severely restricting its capacity to transfer oxygen and carbon dioxide between the blood and air, a condition called asbestosis. Suffering is the apt description of what this does to a person. Normal activity like walking across the room is a monumental effort, leaving the person gasping after a mere few steps. The use of oxygen supplied through a small plastic tube directly to the nose eases the discomfort and prolongs the victim's life, which now amounts to a life sentence.
The worst of the asbestos-caused afflictions is mesothelioma, a cancer of the lung and chest cavity. In this case the fibres react chemically with the body, acting as a carcinogen and actually altering the structure of the affected cells. Again, the patient is condemned to years of pain, discomfort and death.
All this became clear about a half-century ago when miners began complaining of lung problems and coughed up blood. Workers at companies which made products containing asbestos began filing complaints and claims. At first the companies fought back, challenging the merits of the complaints and throwing up a barrage of counter-measures. But as the years went by, study after study bore out the validity of the claims and contributed to the understanding of the seriousness of the various diseases asbestos inflicts on human beings.
Nowadays, asbestos is banned or severely restricted in several countries. In Canada, for example, a contractor renovating an older building who finds asbestos in the walls, ceilings or heating system, has to report this to the relevant environment authorities who then send in a special team to remove the product. They seal the area in a plastic cocoon and workers wearing sealed space suits remove all the stuffing, pack it away carefully in sealed bags which are then caefuly disposed of, completely wash down the entire area and don't return it to the contractor until the air has been found to be totally free of asbestos fibres.
These countries have introduced stringent regulations on the use of asbestos and in many cases ban it altogether. Many countries are now campaigning to have asbestos added to an international treaty on dangerous substances known as the Rotterdam Convention. This convention requires a country which wants to export a prohibited product to secure permission from the importing country.
In this connection, Canada has come out as a bad guy. The area in the province of Quebec known as the Eastern Townships has been the focus of asbestos mining in Canada since the 1870s. Asbestos mining is centred in the town of Thetford Mines, and there is another town actually called Asbestos, which is the site of the Jeffrey Mine, until recently the world's largest source of asbestos. Asbestos was good for the region until its dangers were confirmed. And while it's almost impossible in Canada these days to find any application in which asbestos is used, the prime minister, Stephen Harper, is foremost in supporting asbestos mining and export. In this he's being aided and abetted by an Indian-born tycoon, Baljit Chadha, who is putting together a bid to take over the Jeffrey Mine.
Last year India bought more than half the 135,000 tonnes of asbestos Canada produced, but it is there that Chadha is facing some of his fiercest opposition. He and others in the Canadian asbestos business argue that chrysotile - the curly fibrous form of the mineral produced in Quebec and known as white asbestos - is much safer than the crumbly type called amphibole once used in insulation.
Chrysotile is used in India to make asbestos cement roofing and water pipes. Proponents argue that this binds the mineral and renders it stable, and Chadha says it provides an inexpensive building material to India's poorest and neediest. He adds that independent health inspectors will monitor the material's customers, but those who oppose asbestos say it's difficult to track asbestos products and poor safety standards can render any safeguards meaningless.
Prime Minister Harper, who is known for his stubbornness, is determined to block any effort to add chrysotile to the Rotterdam Convention, putting Canada in the company of such environmentally conscious giants as Russia, Kazakhstan, Zimbabwe and China.
During the election campaign earlier this year Harper visited the town of Asbestos - population a mere 7000 - twice to reinforce his support of the industry. Environmental and health groups opposed to use of the product condemn his stance.
Christian Simard, executive director of Nature Québec, says, "Public policy should be based on science, not on politics," while Kathleen Ruff, senior human rights adviser to the Rideau Institute, says "Canada is becoming known as an immoral asbestos pusher and as an enemy of global public health... This is not the role Canadians want to play in the world."