Canada's controversial asbestos industry was hit with a public-relations tsunami Wednesday, following a volley of damning international media reports that probed the use of the disputed building material in developing countries.
The British Broadcasting Corporation — which claims a worldwide audience of 241 million — aired an in-depth series on the asbestos trade as part of a joint investigation.
The media reports scrutinize Canada's prominent role in the global asbestos industry, which is blamed for 90,000 deaths annually around the world.
And the timing couldn't be worse for Canada's sector, as one of the country's last-remaining asbestos mines holds out for government support to stay alive.
"In 2009, Canada sent nearly 153,000 tonnes of chrysotile — or white asbestos — abroad," says the BBC series titled Dangers in the Dust, prepared in collaboration with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
"More than half went to India; the rest went to Indonesia, Thailand, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates. At home, it is a different story: Canada used only 6,000 tonnes in 2006, the last year for which data is available."
The report says an international marketing campaign has triggered more demand in developing countries for the building material.
Among the groups co-ordinating the successful sales pitch? The Chrysotile Institute, Canada's federally funded asbestos lobby group, says Britain's public broadcaster.
"The asbestos lobby's influence reaches around the world," writes the BBC. "Pro-chrysotile groups have spent nearly $100 million US since the mid-1980s to support asbestos sales in three countries alone: Canada, India and Brazil."
The far-reaching coverage is sure to draw more attention to Canada's asbestos sector, which has become the target of a mounting international anti-asbestos campaign.
Health concerns jeopardize asbestos future
In recent months, health professionals and anti-asbestos activists from around the world have spoken out against Canadian asbestos exports.
The reports were aired on the BBC's international services, along with podcasts and online.
'No country has defended chrysotile as vigorously, and for as long, as Canada. The Chrysotile Institute says the industry accounts for about 700 direct and 2,000 indirect jobs – hardly an economic juggernaut.'—Excerpt from Exporting an Epidemic, a BBC report on asbestos
The coverage also comes as the Quebec government mulls over the delicate decision whether to back a $58-million bank loan to save the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos.
With the loan, Jeffrey Mine, already under bankruptcy protection, would be able to extend operations for another 25 years and protect hundreds of jobs.
The president of the union representing workers at the mine hadn't seen the BBC report when he spoke to The Canadian Press on Wednesday, but after decades of reading negative coverage of his industry, he said he didn't need to.
He said inaccurate perceptions about asbestos — instead of facts — have already taken their toll. "Obviously, it doesn't help when we hear all sorts of things," Rodrigue Chartier said.
"Initially, there were 10 mines, now there's one.… Over here, we went from 2,000 workers to 225. That's what it does."
Supporters of the industry, like Chartier, contend the type of asbestos mined in Canada poses no risk to humans if handled carefully.
The World Health Organization blames asbestos-related diseases for 90,000 deaths annually around the world.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists reports that some predictions say there will be 10 million asbestos-related cancer deaths worldwide by 2030.
Canadian lobby group vilified in report
It painted a particularly critical picture of Canada's asbestos trade and the Chrysotile Institute.
"No country has defended chrysotile as vigorously, and for as long, as Canada," says the report titled Exporting an Epidemic.
"The Chrysotile Institute says the industry accounts for about 700 direct and 2,000 indirect jobs — hardly an economic juggernaut.
"But it survives despite mounting criticism: Both the federal and provincial governments have been besieged by letters from prominent academics, physicians and others protesting Canada's export of chrysotile."
The Chrysotile Institute did not return several messages left Wednesday by The Canadian Press. Neither Quebec Economic Development Minister Clément Gignac nor federal Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis were available for interviews Wednesday.
Shouldn't export asbestos, Ignatieff says
The Conservative government has said it supports the safe use of asbestos. But Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff reiterated his position Wednesday that Canada should stop sending it abroad.
"It's a product that we can no longer export," he said when reporters asked him about it during a visit to Quebec City.
Ignatieff said the federal government should work with Quebec to find new jobs and opportunities for workers in Asbestos.
"We should never abandon them," said Ignatieff, who declined to weigh in on whether Quebec should guarantee the bank loan for Jeffrey Mine.
"I want to work with the Charest government, not give the Charest government lessons."