Fifteen organizations have formed a new group to lobby for the preservation of Canada's dying asbestos industry.
Partners for the Use of Asbestos is made up of several Quebec business groups and unions as well as the government-funded Chrysotile Institute, which promotes the use of asbestos and includes representatives from industry, labour and government.
The Canadian government has been under pressure domestically and internationally to shut down the country's only remaining asbestos mines, both located in Thetford Mines, Que.
Health authorities around the world have long advocated against the use of asbestos, which poses health risks when the silky fibres that make up the mineral get into the air that people breathe.
According to Health Canada, when inhaled in significant quantities, asbestos fibres can cause a scarring of the lungs that impedes breathing; mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the lining of the chest or abdominal cavity; and lung cancer.
The material, which was widely used in the construction and other industries between the 1950s and 70s, often as insulation, has been banned in many developed countries, including the 27 member states of the European Union. In Canada itself, its use is strictly controlled through the Hazardous Products Act.
But the newly formed lobby group argued at a news conference in Montreal on Tuesday that if used responsibly, asbestos — also known as chrysotile — can be safe.
The asbestos industry provides at least 700 direct and more than 2,000 indirect jobs in Quebec, said Chrysotile Institute president Clément Godbout.
"I have [seen] plant closures and shutdowns – [but] never a good, serious program has been provided for the workers," said Godbout. "Their communities [are] destroyed."
A ban on asbestos exports from Quebec would not change anything with regard to the marketing and use of the material in the rest of the world, the group said.
The group said a clear distinction must also be made between chrysotile asbestos and amphibole asbestos, which is no longer on the market.
It also disputed the findings of Quebec’s own workplace health and safety board, which says asbestos contributes to more than 90 deaths per year.
But Godbout argued that the deaths cannot be attributed to asbestos alone.
Despite rebukes from public health organizations and scientists around the world, the Quebec and federal governments have remained staunch supporters of the asbestos industry.
But NDP MP Pat Martin said it is time for Canada to stop defending the material that some have called the greatest industrial killer in the world.
"The asbestos cartel is like the tobacco industry's evil twin, because they both relied for decades on phony science, aggressive lobbying … and out and out lies about the danger of the product," said Martin. "But in this case, it's all paid for by the Canadian taxpayer."
In January, a group of more than 100 scientists from 28 countries wrote a letter to Quebec Premier Jean Charest urging the province to put a stop to asbestos exports.
The World Health Organization has said there are several studies linking all types of asbestos to cancer, and the Canadian government itself has acknowledged that all forms of asbestos are carcinogenic, although it insists the chrysotile form is less so.
Several countries, especially poorer ones, still import asbestos, which is recognized for its heat- and fire-resistant qualities, from Canada. Industry critics have declared that safety precautions are rarely enforced in those countries.