Future bleak for Canadian asbestos industry
The Canadian government recently announced it will stop fighting international efforts to label asbestos as a dangerous substance, potentially sounding the death knell for what was once one of the country’s largest industries.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government is no longer going to oppose efforts to include asbestos in the United Nations’ Rotterdam treaty on hazardous materials, according to The Canadian Press.
Industry Minister Christian Paradis, who hails from central Quebec’s asbestos belt, made the announcement last month, speaking in his hometown of Thetford Mines, a community still dotted with imposing tailing piles that remind locals of role asbestos once played in the area.
Canada for many decades enjoyed a reputation as the world’s top producer of asbestos, once hailed as the “magic mineral” for its fireproofing and insulating characteristics in construction materials.
While asbestos mining began several thousand years ago, it did not start on a large scale until the end of the 19th century. For many decades, the world’s largest asbestos mine was the Jeffrey Mine in the town of Asbestos, Quebec, 90 minutes northeast of Thetford Mines.
Asbestos became increasingly popular among manufacturers and builders in the late 1800s because of its sound absorption, resistance to fire, heat, electrical and chemical damage, and its affordability.
However, it was later learned that prolonged inhalation of asbestos fibers can cause serious illnesses, including malignant lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis.
The European Union banned all use of asbestos and extraction, manufacture and processing of asbestos products in 2005.
The resulting bad publicity related to health concerns crippled the Canadian asbestos industry.
“Health experts and human-rights advocates have frequently voiced concerns about the substance, pointing to studies that have shown inhaling needle-like asbestos fibres can lead to diseases such as lung cancer,” according to The Canadian Press, which added that the World Health Organization estimates that 107,000 people die globally each year from asbestos-related disease.
Canada’s asbestos sector finally ground to a halt last fall for the first time in 130 years when production stalled in both of the country’s remaining mines – one in Thetford Mines, and the other in Asbestos.
Paradis blamed the new Parti Quebecois provincial government for killing the industry and cast the federal government’s decision not to oppose efforts to include asbestos in the UN’s Rotterdam treaty on hazardous materials as an inevitable response.
Parti Quebecois officials have said they will cancel a $58 million loan, confirmed just a few months ago by the previous Liberal provincial government, aimed at reviving what would be the country’s only asbestos operation, in Asbestos.
Paradis pulled no punches during his announcement, blaming the sovereigntist Parti Quebecois for the turn of events.
“First off I’d like to remind you that Pauline Marois, the premier-designate of Quebec, has clearly stated her intention to forbid chrysotile exploitation in Quebec,” he said.
“Obviously that decision will have a negative impact on the prosperity of our regions …
“In the meantime hundreds of workers in our region are without jobs, are living in uncertainty and hoping the mine will reopen … Madame Marois has clearly made her decision,” he added. “So our government has made a decision that it’s now time to look after our communities, workers and families.”
Paradis promised that the Harper government would spend up to $50 million to help a region deeply in need of jobs diversify its economy, according to the wire service.
It’s not entirely clear what the future holds for the Canadian asbestos industry.
One industry official said several other countries – notably Russia, China and Brazil – could still block the substance from being added to the UN list as they have in the past. Even if does get listed, it would simply mean adding labels warning about possible health risks, rather than actually limiting exports.
“Inclusion of chrysotile in the Rotterdam Convention would in no way signal the end of the chrysotile business in Canada,” Jeffrey Mine spokesman Guy Versailles said. “It does not say, ‘prohibit imports and exports.’”
(Above: A raw chunk of asbestos being held by a worker, 1944. Photo credit: Canadian Public Health Association.)