FEDERAL (Canadian OH&S News)
The federal government recently announced it would no longer fight the inclusion of asbestos on an international roster of hazardous materials, effectively debunking the industry’s hopes to revive the industrial white elephant.
On Sept. 14, industry minister Christian Paradis announced Canada would join international ranks and no longer oppose global standards listing chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous substance — and even went as far as to halt its exportation altogether.
“The incoming Quebec government has made it clear they will no longer provide that support, and in fact, will ban the mining of chrysotile,” Alexandra Fortier, Paradis’s press secretary said in a statement. “This means that chrysotile mines are no longer viable and Canada will no longer be an exporter of chrysotile.”
In the past, the government had stopped asbestos from being listed as a hazardous substance under the Rotterdam Convention, the global standards for the trade of hazardous substances, arguing that there are safe ways to produce chrysotile. Currently, five other forms of asbestos are listed as hazardous under the Rotterdam Convention, and because every member’s consent is needed, chrysotile is not one of them.
The move was lauded by the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), whose president added that, despite being a major economic driver, naming asbestos a hazard would improve the health and safety of its miners by leaps and bounds.
“The workers, with exposure over time, were quite likely to develop work-related illness. So in terms of the health hazards, exposure to asbestos is the number one cause of workplace-related deaths for Quebec workers, and it amounted to 60 per cent of fatalities,” explained CMA president Dr. Anna Reid.
Reid cited asbestosis (the scarring of lung tissue, making it hard to breathe), mesothelioma (a cancer in the lining of lungs and abdominal cavity) and lung cancer as among the most deadly ailments facing miners of chrysotile asbestos.
Of particular concern is the effect on jobs and economic stability in Quebec’s asbestos mining belt, which produces all of Canada’s asbestos exports.
But advances in mining technology have rendered most safety hazards obsolete, said Guy Versailles, a spokesman for the Jeffrey Mine in Quebec.
“All of the mines that I know of — I’m not talking about clandestine mines in the mountains of India or that sort of operation — in all major modern industrial operations, that includes mines, mills and plants that incorporate chrysotile in any products — the conditions are safe, the levels of exposure are way down,” Versailles said. “The workers in those plants are monitored for their health; levels of dust exposure are taken regularly. This is quite simply not an issue anymore and it has not been for at least a quarter of a century.”
Versailles added that the Jeffrey asbestos mine has two full-time hygienists on site and that the average level of chrysotile in the air is well below the provincial standard of one fibre per cubic centimetre.
Further complicating the matter are the contracts with previous Quebec regimes that Versailles said must be honoured to keep the asbestos mine running.
“I don’t want to sound disrespectful towards the new Quebec government when I say this, but I mean basically we do have an agreement with the government of Quebec, which goes way back to April of 2011,” Versailles contended. “There is a strong market out there, two-thirds of humanity believe this product can be used safely, and we are working towards reopening the mine and resuming exports.”
Amidst backlash from the mining companies in Quebec’s asbestos region, Fortier added that the government will invest up to $50 million to diversify the industry.
Quebec’s reigning Parti Quebecois government, elected in early September, could not be reached for comment as of press time.