Asbestos: The magic mineral that was once Canada's gold

Despite health concerns, asbestos continues to be mined in Canada. Our country is the second-largest exporter of the mineral, after Russia, shipping it mainly to developing countries such as India and China.

Asbestos wasn't always a dirty word.

It was once called the "magic mineral" and was touted as Canadian gold — a unique resource that was going to bring our country wealth and prosperity.

The needle-like fibre had many uses and inventors were tripping over each other to find more: it was woven into clothes, building insulation and coffee pots. It was even mixed with children's play dough and, at one point, had roughly 4,000 other applications.

But in the 1960s and '70s, when more and more asbestos miners started coughing up blood, the sheen wore off. Canada has spent the last 20-plus years trying to rid our homes, schools and offices — including Parliament Hill — of the dangerous dust that was often loosely sprayed as insulation.

Our hospitals, however, are still dealing with the aftereffects. In 2007, at an occupational health clinic in Sarnia, Ont., nurses continue to register almost one new patient a day with asbestos-related cancer, such as mesothelioma, or asbestosis, says the clinic's executive director, Jim Brophy.

The southwestern Ontario city of 73,000 is home to a large petrochemical complex, which includes such companies as Imperial Oil, Suncor and Shell. The thousands of pipes that run throughout this "chemical valley" were covered with asbestos insulation and some still remains.

Quebec, home to most of Canada's asbestos mines, has one of the highest rates of mesothelioma on the planet.

Worldwide, about 125 million people are exposed to asbestos at work and at least 90,000 die each year from asbestos-related diseases, according to the World Health Organization.

"It's really a public health epidemic," Brophy said.

Still mined

In spite of health concerns, asbestos continues to be mined in Canada. Our country is the second-largest exporter of the mineral after Russia, shipping it mainly to developing countries such as India and China.

What's more, unlike countries in the European Union, as well as Japan, Australia and Saudi Arabia, Canada has not banned asbestos. Rather, the federal government actively promotes its use globally. An October 2008 editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal criticizing asbestos exporting called Canada  "an avid asbestos cheerleader."

Ottawa argues that the type of asbestos mined today, chrysotile (white asbestos), is different than the type (amphibole) that has wreaked so much havoc. It's less crumbly and is used for things like cement, a solid that is less likely to release the deadly fibres into the atmosphere, says the Chrysotile Institute, a government-funded organization that promotes controlled use of the mineral.

But there are still calls for an outright ban of the substance in Canada. In July 2007, the Canadian Cancer Society called for the federal government to phase out both the use and export of asbestos. It said that exposure to asbestos must stop in order to eliminate the diseases associated with the fibres.

Such a ban, of course, would have a devastating effect on long-time asbestos miners, who are among the most vulnerable population.

"For decades these workers suffered the brunt of these asbestos-related diseases, and are now watching their livelihood, not just for themselves but for the whole community, hit the tank," said Brophy. "We have a terrible situation going on."

The 'magic mineral'

Asbestos was first mined in Quebec in the 1870s. In the mineral's heyday, Canada boasted the world's biggest open pit mine, the Jeffrey Mine located in the province's Eastern Townships. The industry thrived and a town was even named after it, Asbestos, Que., which used to wear the moniker with pride.

"These enormous asbestos deposits in the province of Quebec are immensely valuable to Canada in war and peace, and they form a very important part of our great heritage of mineral wealth," said CBC Radio's Lorne Greene in 1942, on-site at the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos, Que.

But by the late 1960s, the bloom was starting to fade. More and more miners had shortness of breath, extreme fatigue and were coughing up blood. Studies linking asbestos to voracious diseases such as lung cancer, scarred lungs (asbestosis), and mesothelioma (cancer of the stomach and chest, which is only caused by exposure to asbestos) began to rack up.

One of the very things that made asbestos so popular — its indestructibility — was what also made it so vicious. Once a person inhaled the deadly dust, it was impossible for the body to break the fibres down and it eventually led to severe scarring and death.

In the fall of 1974, Dr. Irving J. Selikoff, the world's foremost authority on asbestos-related diseases, and a team of doctors examined the miners at Thetford Mines in Quebec. He condemned the working conditions as the worst on the continent, further cementing asbestos' notorious legacy. The sentiment spread to Baie Verte, Nfld., in 1978. Miners walked off the job and demanded protections to reduce their exposure to the deadly asbestos dust. The 15-week strike was the longest health-related strike in Canadian history, and caught the nation's attention.

Trying to dust itself off

In the 1980s, the asbestos industry in Quebec tried to mend its crumbling image and salvage its shrivelling industry. The province was quickly becoming the centre of the asbestos controversy and many of the mines' customers began phasing out the mineral from their products.

The industry, backed by the Canadian government, spent millions on research and to fight bans on the product at home and abroad. In 1984, Ottawa established The Asbestos Institute, a non-profit organization to promote the safe use of white asbestos.

But in 1989, the industry was dealt a hefty blow: the U.S. announced plans to ban asbestos because of the health risks. While Canada's neighbours to the south weren't big importers of the mineral, the asbestos industry feared the move would have a domino effect worldwide.

However, the U.S. didn't completely ban the use of asbestos. NASA uses the fibres to insulate the solid fuel boosters of the space shuttles, because of its heat-resistant properties. But, Brophy says there is a de facto ban on the substance as the legal consequences associated with asbestos-related disease act as a deterrent.

Asbestos litigation is the biggest issue facing the American courts, Brophy says. "Nobody in their right mind, in the [American] economy, will use it. It's just such an economic liability."

Banned in developed countries

The World Health Organization has labelled all types of asbestos, including chrysotile, as carcinogenic. It is banned in many developed countries, including New Zealand, Australia and all European Union countries.

But Canada continues to be a proponent of the controlled use of white asbestos. The Chrysotile Institute says the industry has learned from previous problems and has strict controls in place at the plants. Provincial governments now regulate the use and handling of asbestos on job sites.

"Most of these health hazards come from the past use of amphibole asbestos and from inappropriate practices such as sprayed-on insulation. These practices have been discontinued in Canada since the 1970s," the Ministry of Natural Resources says on its website.

In fact, the Canadian government fought to keep asbestos off a U.N.-sponsored list of dangerous substances. If included on the list, called the Rotterdam Convention, any country looking to import asbestos would be informed of all the potential risks and would have to agree in advance to accept any shipments.

Julia Langer, director of the global threats program at the World Wildlife Fund in Canada, one of the groups pressuring the United Nations to restrict the export of asbestos, said the move was despicable. Including asbestos on the list "could have saved a lot of lives," she said.

In the most recent update to the Rotterdam Convention's Prior Informed Consent list in October 2008, chrysotile was again left off after India, Pakistan, Vietnam and the Philippines objected. To be added to the list, consensus must be reached. The Canadian delegation did not address the topic.

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Experts' report unreleased

"Canada has credibility for protecting the environment, [and has] a reputation for being a democratic and fair-thinking country... and yet on this one particular issue, Canada acts out of greed and political need. And what [the government has] done is unconscionable," Langer told CBC News.

In the fall of 2007, Health Canada hired a panel of seven experts on asbestos and occupational health to take another look at the cancer risks of chrysotile asbestos. Their report was completed and submitted in March 2008.

In May 2008, Bloc Quebecois MP Andre Bellevance implied in the House of Commons that the report suggested that it supported his view that asbestos is not a great risk. When his comments reached members of the panel, two wrote letters to Health Minister Tony Clement, accusing Canada of breaking faith with the experts.

Panel chair Trevor Ogden wrote that his professional reputation and that of the other members of the panel was at risk if the government continued to sit on the report. He called the delay unacceptable. He also said their work was being misrepresented.

A dying industry

The asbestos industry, regardless of a substance ban, may die in Canada on its own.

Since the 1980s, export and production of the mineral has dwindled down to less than 25 per cent of its original haul.

A multitude of factors are at play, in addition to the controversy Chrysotile courts at home. High transportation costs, the strength of the Canadian dollar and the ability of other countries, such as Zimbabwe, to sell the mineral at a cheaper cost have cut into Canada's ability to compete.

"Asbestos is a dying industry," says Langer. "Quebec can't compete with production in Zimbabwe or in Russia, and they're trying to keep this industry alive for whatever reason they have, and the government is complying with the demands that the industry be protected at all costs. And the costs to the Canadian citizens are huge."