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Canada's Asbestos Problem Divides Politicians and Citizens

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Montreal, QCLast November, production halted for the first time in 130 years at the last of Quebec's asbestos mine. Unlike many companies in the US that have claimed bankruptcy mainly due to asbestos lawsuits, the Quebec mines closed because of environmental and financial issues (who is buying asbestos anymore?). But the Quebec government says it ain't over 'til its over, and that has caused a lot of dissention amongst Canadians.

Canada takes pride in being clean and honest, but for many years, the asbestos mine in the town of Asbestos was like Canada's dirty little secret. Not so anymore.

Jean Charest, Quebec's Premier stated months ago that he would grant a $58-million government loan to reopen the mine, but the deal has not been approved yet. Still, the Jeffrey Mine president, Bernard Coulombe, expects production to resume as soon as this spring, and one asbestos businessman, Balit Chadha, is hopeful the government will give him the go-ahead following a third-party safety audit.

Incredibly, the federal government still maintains it has promoted "safe use of chrysotile domestically and internationally for more than 30 years," adding that scientific reviews confirm fibers can be used safely under controlled conditions. (More about scientific reviews below.) But asbestos experts, including the World Health Organization, take the stance that zero asbestos is the only safe asbestos. As for safety, are there controlled conditions in India—the Jeffrey Mine's main customer?

If the mine does open, one thing is for sure: there will be mass protests throughout the country, and particularly in Quebec. Two recent and damning documentaries shown on CBC and Radio-Canada renewed opposition from politicians to outlaw the cancer-causing mineral, and launched a review into previous research at McGill University.

Quebec's opposition party said one of the documentaries "reveals the true face of a lobby that in the past has had no scruples at all about manipulating the facts to the detriment of human health to defend its financial interests."

The documentary detailed how the asbestos industry in Quebec engaged professor emeritus John Corbett McDonald to produce studies that would raise doubt about US studies that showed chrysotile—the type of asbestos mined at the Jeffrey Mine—causes cancer. The documentary stated that the Quebec asbestos lobby continues to this day to cite the work of McDonald's research as evidence that exposure to levels of chrysotile asbestos fibers two hundred times higher than permitted in Europe, the US and most of Canada, will cause no harm to health.

McGill University announced it has launched a preliminary review into the work of McDonald, after the university received a letter signed by dozens of academics, physicians and researchers accusing McDonald and other McGill researchers of being controlled by the asbestos industry.

Politicians have called on both provincial and federal governments to stop financing the asbestos industry and to ban export of the mineral, and one mining critic is calling for a parliamentary commission to look at the issue. Minister of Parliament Pat Martin said the Criminal Code of Canada should be amended to address what he calls "murder" by the asbestos industry.

Chrysotile asbestos is a known cancer-causing substance and it is banned in more than 50 countries. It's about time Canada became the 51st country.


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