Quebec’s Premier, Jean Charest, is coming under fire for continuing to sell asbestos to underdeveloped countries, particularly India, Indonesia and Bangladesh, despite the known health risks. Asbestos can cause mesothelioma, other cancers and asbestosis.
In an editorial this week, Montreal-based newspaper The Gazette calls the Charest government’s asbestos policy ‘deeply immoral’. According to the news organization, Quebec exports some 175,000 tons of asbestos annually, despite the fact that the World Health Organization considers asbestos a serious health hazard and recognizes its link to most cases of the rare cancer, mesothelioma.
The Gazette editorial argues that Canada’s asbestos industry is not an economic issue for the country, since it employs fewer than a thousand people, but rather a political issue. Nearly all of Canada’s asbestos exports come out of Quebec, which would likely be the only province impacted by an export ban.
Asbestos is heavily regulated in Canada and efforts are being made to eradicate it from the country’s buildings. However, Charest defends the country’s stance on exports by maintaining that asbestos is safe when ‘handled safely’. But The Gazette calls the idea of safe handling in impoverished countries such as India ‘a meaningless abstraction’. The health impacts of asbestos exposure are severe. For example, mesothelioma has a median survival of only about a year with conventional therapies.
Countries like India which important asbestos use the mineral for industrial applications, such as the manufacture of water and sewage pipes, packing materials, brake linings in cars, and in some heavy equipment. Although asbestos mining is banned in India, its import and its use are still allowed. According to a report released by the UK-based International Ban Asbestos Secretariat and several industrial workers unions, India is the world’s largest importer of chrysotile asbestos, the type being exported from Canada. The group warns of an asbestos-linked healthcare crisis in the coming years if the practice is not stopped.
An estimated 90,000 people worldwide die of asbestos-related diseases such as lung cancer and mesothelioma each year. Both Canada and India have successfully opposed the regulation of international chrysotile asbestos trade under the Rotterdam Convention – an international convention that disseminates information on harmful substances.