The Quebec government’s recent announcement of a $58-million infusion to breathe life into Canada’s beleaguered asbestos industry has drawn outrage from various quarters.
On June 29, the provincial government confirmed it would provide the loan, bearing 10 per cent interest, to Mine Jeffrey Inc. to transform the shuttered open-pit mine in Asbestos, Quebec into an underground operation. Coupled with a $25- million investment from shareholders, the funding will enable the mine to be productive for at least the next 20 years, says Guy Versailles, a spokesperson for the shareholder group in Montreal.
Bernard Coulombe, president and CEO of the mining company, said in a statement in July that the mine will create 500 jobs and an additional 1,000 indirect jobs. “This is a great day for Mine Jeffrey,” Coulombe says.
But to many, any economic gains from reviving an asbestos mine are more than offset by the health risks that come with the carcinogenic material. “We are disappointed that the government has agreed to a loan for the mine,” says Paul Lapierre, vice-president of cancer control and public affairs with the Canadian Cancer Society in Toronto.
Linda Reinstein, president and chief executive officer of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) in Redondo Beach, California, says she is outraged at the government’s latest move to revive the mine. “It’s criminally reprehensible when we think about it,” charges Reinstein. “We know so much about asbestos today and this decision is not only a setback for public health in Canada, but public health around the world,” she adds.
Reinstein has an intimate understanding of the pain of losing a loved one to an asbestos-related disease. In 2003, her 63-year-old husband, who was diagnosed with mesothelioma, battled the illness for three years. “He had a rib removed, his left lung, pericardium and his diaphragm were surgically replaced, all for more time with our family,” Reinstein recounts. They also had to deal with the loss of income as he was unable to get back to work. “But the real expense for me is the fact that it shatters the entire family.”
NOT TOO LOW
When operations at the mine ramp up, export of chrysotile or white asbestos — which Versailles contends does not pose a health risk to workers when handled safely — will begin within a year, producing an estimated 250,000 tons annually, or about 12 per cent of world production.
Strict precautions are in place to ensure worker safety at the mine, Versailles stresses, noting the level of chrysotile outside the machine used to produce the substance is typically about 0.2 fibres per cubic centimetre — five times less than the one fibre per cubic centimetre stipulated by occupational exposure standards applied in Quebec.
Reinstein, however, argues that there is no safe level of exposure. “The asbestos industry’s propaganda and junk science blurs the fact that all six fibre types, including chrysotile, are known human carcinogens. It’s ridiculous to think a little white asbestos toxin is safe. Would a little bit of arsenic be OK in your child’s cereal?”
Dr. Yv Bonnier-Viger, president of the Montreal-based Association of Community Health Medical Specialists of Quebec, says any form of asbestos, even at very low concentrations, can cause cancer.
That is also the position held by the Canadian Cancer Society and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon, France. In a March of 2011 conference, which provided an update on scientific evidence relating to asbestos and cancer, Dr. Kurt Straif, head of the IARC monographs section, concluded that “all commercial forms of asbestos fibres are causally associated with an increased risk of mesothelioma and lung cancer.”
The World Health Organization reports that more than 100,000 people worldwide die every year from diseases related to occupational exposure to asbestos.
Versailles, however, maintains that the mining process at the mine is safe. When ore is shattered, chrysotile shakes loose from the rock, with rock dust going on one side of a separator and the lighter chrysotile on the other. “You need earmuffs because the noise is deafening, but you can walk in those plants without a mask because the level [of chrysotile] is entirely controlled through air flows,” he argues.
After the substance is mined, it is put into sealed bags and placed onto a pallet covered with shrink wrap, before being transferred into a sealed container. The seal is broken only upon arrival at the plant of the country to which it is being shipped, Versailles explains. The bags are then thrown unopened into a machine that mulches the asbestos into the cement and comes out as cement, so it cannot be breathed in.
Both Lapierre and Dr. Bonnier-Viger acknowledge that there are very stringent precautions in place to protect workers. “The way it is extracted is very safe for the miners, the progress made in the mine is really protecting the workers there, so there’s no doubt in my mind,” Lapierre says.
It is what happens after asbestos has been mined that is concerning. Dr. Bonnier-Viger points out that occupational exposure standards in Quebec apply only to those directly working with the substance, sidestepping the issue of asbestos fibres being spread into the environment.
Exporting the product to developing countries, where regulations surrounding the protection of workers and the environment may be lacking, is another issue. Dr. Bonnier-Viger calls the belief that these countries can safely use the product “criminal cynicism.”
While Versailles does not deny the fact that subpar operations do exist in developing countries, the mine will only sell to qualified manufacturers that demonstrate safe practices and are also committed to annual audits.
“At some point, people will have to come to terms with the fact that the past is the past and today’s different,” Versailles contends, suggesting the general public’s impression of developing countries is outdated, especially for major users of chrysotile, such as China and India. He claims that hazardous conditions that led to exposures in the past have not existed for the last two decades. “The health statistics at Jeffrey mine, in particular, have been impeccable for the past 30 years.”
Baljit Chadha, head of the Montreal-based international trading and marketing firm Balcorp Limited and one of the principals in the shareholder group investing in the mine, says in a statement that chrysotile encapsulated in cement is ideal for roofing panels and pipes, providing low-cost roofs and drinking water for the poorest people.
“In the developing world, such products are extremely useful,” Chadha explains, noting the material is better suited to the local climate and less costly than roofing sheets and pipes made of iron or petroleum derivatives. Furthermore, they can be manufactured locally with cement, with only the chrysotile being imported. “We’ve been selling two million tons a year for 50 years and it’s still going on. It’s actually increasing,” Versailles adds.
The products are similar to the chrysotile-cement cladding and pipes that were used extensively and can still be found in Canada. They are
different from the ‘loose products’ used in the past in industrialized countries, including Canada, where chrysotile was not tightly bound, such as piping insulation or sprayed insulation products, the statement adds.
Still, opponents argue that the production and export of asbestos is not safe and the long latency period of asbestos-related illnesses, ranging from 10 to 50 years, will pose safety hazards down the road.
“I think it’s a shame for our government to allow the export of a product that is mishandled at the receiving end,” Lapierre says. “My concern with chrysotile and the industry itself is it’s a new generation of people that are at risk.”
Dr. Marc de Perrot, a scientist at Toronto General Hospital, conducts research on malignant pleural mesothelioma. He believes the asbestos exported from the Jeffrey mine will contribute to a major epidemic in developing countries over the next few decades. “The asbestos that is exported from Quebec is not controlled at all. The government just doesn’t have the right information by saying its safe,” he contends.
Besides the long latency period, part of the problem, in particular with mesothelioma — a form of cancer that originates from the protective lining that sheaths the internal organs of the body — is the tumour progresses rapidly once it develops, with the individual exhibiting only minimal symptoms until it is fairly advanced, Dr. de Perrot says. He notes that he is seeing an increasing number of patients who do not necessarily remember where the exposure occurred.
“It’s still a very aggressive tumour with poor outcome,” he says, pointing out that mesothelioma at an early stage can be difficult to detect on a CT scan or chest X-ray. The tumour, by entrapping the lung, creates respiratory failure and can invade the nerves along the ribs, including those that lead to the arms, creating intense pain as it progresses.
This process, which typically occurs within a few months, virtually stops the lung from functioning progressively, Dr. de Perrot adds. Shortness of breath and chest pain are the two main symptoms, followed by weight loss and fatigue as the tumour advances. Patients usually live between eight and 15 months from the time of diagnosis, with a median survival period of approximately one year.
Dr. Bonnier-Viger, who lost his wife to the cancer, remembers the dramatic weight loss and accelerated aging stemming from the terminal illness that made the energetic 56-year-old look as if she had aged half a century in two years.
The debate continues as the resuscitation of Jeffrey mine continues to be a polarizing force, especially in Quebec. “If it was half as dangerous as people say it is, there would not be a living person in a hundred mile radius of that mine,” Versailles says.
Lapierre disagrees. “We need to take asbestos seriously, because it does cause cancer and people are dying of cancer.”
Jason Contant is managing editor of OHS Canada.
The Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) is calling for a comprehensive strategy to address exposure to asbestos and asbestos-related diseases, says Paul Lapierre, vice-president of cancer control and public affairs with the CCS in Toronto. Among other recommendations, the organization is urging the federal, provincial and territorial governments to do the following:
- immediately set a clear timetable for phasing out the use and export of asbestos;
- develop a national surveillance system to track health outcomes of people already exposed to asbestos and all asbestos-related diseases in Canada;
- create a public registry of buildings that contain asbestos, including buildings on aboriginal lands, privately-owned buildings and government-owned structures;
- provide transition support for affected communities;
- add chrysotile asbestos to Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention, a list of pesticides and industrial chemicals that have been banned or severely restricted for health or environmental reasons; and,
- continue to conduct research on safer substitutes for asbestos.
In Canada, exposure to asbestos is highest for people who mine it or work with it in manufacturing. Their families are also at risk of exposure if fibres that have collected on workers’ clothings are brought home. As of 2011, more than 55 countries have banned the use of all forms of asbestos, notes information from the CCS.