Scientists press for global asbestos ban

A call for the global ban on all forms of asbestos was made today by more than 150 international organizations.
Canadian and International organizations released a statment Tuesday, calling for a global ban on the mining and exporting of asbestos. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

A call for the global ban on all forms of asbestos was made today by more than 150 international organizations.

The statement, released Tuesday, calling for the ban on the mining, use and export of all form of asbestos has already been approved by over 150 public health organizations and scientists from at least 20 countries.

The statement was released on the heels of last month's announcement by the Quebec government saying it would lend $58 million to help re-start the former Johns-Manville mine in Quebec, keeping the production and export of asbestos going for another 20 years.

"Continued use of asbestos will lead to a public health disaster of asbestos-related illness and premature death for decades to come, repeating the epidemic we are witnessing today in industrialized countries that used asbestos in the past," said Dr. Stanley Weiss, chair of the Joint Policy Committee of the Societies of Epidemiology, which released the statement.

The group includes a number of Canadian, U.S. and international epidemiology organizations, working together for the first time to fight the distribution of asbestos.

"The body of evidence is now so overwhelming and it was time to step up and come together as a group," Professor Colin Soskolne, past-president of the Canadian Society of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, told CBC News.

While activists argue asbestos is linked to cancer, industry proponents have insisted it can be used safely if handled properly.

"The vast majority of people who are not in the pocket of industry …we all agree that the time has come to expose the controversy as a non-controversy." Soskolne said. "There is no doubt about the harmful effects of asbestos, and there is not enough doubt to undermine the need for policy change."

Those opposed to asbestos are urging major producers — including Brazil, Kazakhstan, Russia and Canada — to put an end to mining and exports and help communities make the transition to a different industry.

"Promoting deceit is immoral and we need to take a higher ground than the one we are taking … and help the people in those mining communities to retool and develop different industries," he said.

Canada 'exporting the problem'

In the 1960s and '70s a number of asbestos miners began showing signs of respiratory diseases and as a direct result Canada began to rid homes, schools and offices of the hazardous material applied as insulation. However, Canada still mines and exports white asbestos — which is a form the Canadian government says is safe to use.

"There is a profound double standard that can't be defended on any moral basis," Soskolne said. "Giving this substance to developing countries is utterly immoral."

The epidemiologists say they hope their efforts highlight the seriousness of the health hazards.

"There is no controversy, we know it causes disease and death," Weiss told CBC News. "We are still dealing with the devastating impact of past use and we want to stop a continuing epidemic."

With files from the Canadian Press