MPs slam Tories for blocking asbestos listing

Opposition MPs slammed the Harper government Thursday over Canada's opposition to putting chrysotile asbestos on an international list of hazardous chemicals.
Lab Chrysotile asbestos mining operations in Black Lake, Que. Canada is blocking a move to add chrysotile asbestos to an international list of potentially hazardous chemicals. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Opposition MPs slammed the Harper government Thursday over Canada's opposition to putting chrysotile asbestos on an international list of hazardous chemicals.

The opposition side of the House of Commons lined up several MPs to demand why Canada refuses to let the chemical be listed in the Rotterdam Convention's Annex III.

The listing would allow countries like India, where companies import the lung cancer-causing material for construction, to deny it entry if officials don't think they can properly handle it.

"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 says despite Industry Minister Christian 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, Switzerland, 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."

Only G8 country to object

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 during the first few days of meetings.

Canada is the only G8 country objecting to the listing.  Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Ukraine also voiced their objections Thursday as representatives headed into a break-out 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 Michael Stanley-Jones, a spokesman for the UN's environment program.

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 … 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.

The break-out meeting continued Thursday evening, with the conference to wrap up Friday afternoon. The conference is held every two years.