Canada wins battle to keep asbestos off hazardous list

Canada wins the fight, for at least another two years, to keep asbestos off an international list of hazardous chemicals as discussions wrap up in Geneva.
Lab Chrysotile asbestos mining operations in Black Lake, Que. Canada has blocked a move to add chrysotile asbestos to an international list of potentially hazardous chemicals. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Canada won the fight, for at least another two years, to keep asbestos off an international list of hazardous chemicals as discussions wrapped up in Geneva on Friday.

The conference of participants to the Rotterdam Convention ended without agreement on whether to add chrysotile asbestos to the Annex 3 list.

The country was one of only a handful — and the only western country — to maintain its objection until the end of the week, denying the conference the consensus it needed to make the change.

"Chrysotile now goes before [the next meeting] in 2013," UN Environment Programmr spokesman Michael Stanley-Jones said in an email.

Conservative cabinet ministers in Ottawa insisted the lung-cancer-causing substance can be used safely.

The Rotterdam Convention meeting, held every two years, wrapped up as Prime Minister Stephen Harper spent part of Friday in the last riding in the country with a working asbestos mine.

Harper spoke at a barbecue in Thetford Mines, Que., home to a chrysotile asbestos mine that exports to India.

But he didn't address a growing controversy over Canada's refusal to let asbestos be listed, a move that would have allowed countries like India, where companies import the material for construction, to deny it entry if officials don't think they can properly handle it.

Thetford Mines is in the riding of Industry Minister Christian Paradis, who has been dodging questions about the international meeting for almost two weeks.

Opposition MPs slammed the Harper government Thursday over Canada's opposition to putting chrysotile on the list.

"Asbestos is the greatest industrial killer the world has ever known. More people die from asbestos than all industrial causes combined, yet Canada continues to be one of the largest producers and exporters in the world. We are exporting human misery on a monumental scale," said NDP MP Pat Martin. "Our position is morally and ethically reprehensible."

Liberal MP Marc Garneau said despite Paradis' insistence that asbestos can be used safely, he should know that's not the case in developing countries.

"This minister knows full well that it's very difficult to use chrysotile in the proper working conditions. The procedures, the training, the complex equipment to use it in a safe way so that fibres aren't accidentally breathed in," Garneau said. "He cannot assure us that this is not being used improperly in countries that import it, Third World countries … This is willful blindness."

But Paradis returned to the response he and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver have been offering since the Rotterdam Convention meetings started in Geneva earlier this week.

"We know that recent studies show that chrysotile can be used in a safe and controlled manner," Paradis said. "This is risk management, so we know that chrysotile can be used safely in a controlled environment."

Delegates at the Rotterdam Convention meetings, where decisions are made by consensus, seemed close Wednesday to putting chrysotile asbestos on the list when Canada spoke up. Canadian delegates hadn't objected over the first few days of meetings.

Canada is the only G8 country objecting to the listing.  Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Ukraine continued their objections Thursday as the parties headed into a breakout session to try to work through some of the objections. Vietnam had also raised an objection, but missed a followup meeting on the issue, said Stanley-Jones.

David Sproule, the head of Canada's delegation, told participants that "Canada is not in a position to agree to the listing of chrysotile asbestos in Annex 3 at this conference of the parties," Stanley-Jones said.

India is a major buyer of Canadian asbestos, but this week dropped a longstanding objection to the listing.