More than 100 scientists from 28 countries have lent their support to a letter urging Quebec Premier Jean Charest to put a stop to asbestos exports from the province.
They are asking Charest to take heed of extensive international scientific opinion that all forms of asbestos present a danger to public health.
The letter, dated Thursday, is the latest salvo in the battle over asbestos mining in Quebec and comes as Charest prepares to depart on a trade mission to India, one of the major importers of Canadian asbestos.
The scientists say the province needs to stop mining asbestos — also called chrysotile — and stop sending it abroad to developing countries.
Asbestos, recognized for its heat- and fire-resistant qualities, was widely used in Canada and around the world between the 1950s and the 70s, often as insulation.
Several countries, especially poorer ones, still import asbestos from Canada, despite numerous studies linking it to health hazards, including cancer.
'Virtually all Quebec's asbestos is exported to developing countries, where protections are few and awareness of hazards are non-existent,'— Letter from international group of scientists to Premier Jean Charest
The case the scientists made against the material in their letter was dismissed as rehashed arguments by the Chrysotile Institute, an asbestos lobby group and a fierce defender of the product.
The asbestos industry claims chrysotile can be used safely as long as precautions are followed.
"Instead of giving new scientific research or data, they are just launching accusations," president Clément Godbout said in an interview after reading the letter.
"If they have new data and studies showing that the way chrysotile is used today in Canada and Quebec is an unacceptable risk for people, please send them to us because I've never seen such a study."
The academics say Quebec's position is hypocritical and that the province should stop funding the pro-asbestos lobby.
"It's a good occasion for him to realize the Quebec asbestos question is a worldwide problem right now," said Dr. Fernand Turcotte, a professor of public health at Laval University.
"And since Mr.Charest has gained a high-level of international visibility at the [climate-change] conference in Copenhagen, the risk [was there] that he'd be called out on the asbestos issue."
The letter states that while Quebec exports asbestos, it rarely uses it in construction projects at home.
"Quebec itself uses virtually none of the asbestos it mines, in spite of major infrastructure projects currently underway," the letter notes. "Instead virtually all Quebec's asbestos is exported to developing countries, where protections are few and awareness of hazards are non-existent."
In 2008, Canada exported 175,000 tonnes of chrysotile — almost all of it to developing nations such as India, Bangladesh and Indonesia. Industry critics have declared that safety precautions are rarely enforced in those countries.
"Countries that have decided to ban, that's their right and we have to respect that," Godbout said. "Countries that have decided to use it, that's also their right, but they have to use it in a proper manner with precautions to be taken."
Canada's $100-million-a-year asbestos industry is localized mainly in Thetford Mines, Que., home to the country's last operational mine with about 400 employees.
Turcotte said he hopes the number of scientists lending their name to the letter adds "weight and credibility" to their discourse and prompts Charest to act.
"We hope that he'll set up a serious economic program to help those people who are still making their livelihood out of that industry," Turcotte said. "And make a firm and public commitment about ending the exploitation of asbestos in this country."
Must be used responsibly
But Charest's office said Thursday the premier has encouraged countries that use chrysotile asbestos, or white asbestos, to ratify a 23-year-old convention by the International Labour Organization concerning the safe use of chrysotile asbestos.
"We promote safe usage and there are plenty of mechanisms within which the industry works," said Hugo D'Amours, a spokesman for the premier. "But it's clear that those who buy asbestos have a responsibility."
Figures released by Quebec's Workers Health and Safety Board indicated that asbestos-related deaths are the most common among workers in Quebec. In 2008, of 127 deaths, 58 were linked to asbestos.
Board spokesman Pierre Turgeon said it's not necessarily an epidemic, notably because the victims were exposed to asbestos at a time when the rules were more lax.
"Most of the victims are older than 70," Turgeon said. "The deaths are the result of past exposure to asbestos and asbestos fibres and, medically, it takes between 15 and 40 years between the moment of exposure and the onset of illness."