Should Canada Lobby For UN To Add Asbestos To Its Hazardous List?

Illustration of legal cases for asbestos and mesothelioma

There has been lots of buzz surrounding Canada’s allowance of the chrysotile form of asbestos within the country. Greg Rickford, Federal Natural Resources Minister, said Canada would not fight the United Nation’s addition of asbestos to its treaty.

The Rotterdam Convention will meet in Geneva next week over this treaty of products, which would result in countries needing to clearly label products with the carcinogenic material as a risk to human health.

“We would really like [Canada] to play an advocacy role and actually stand up and say, ‘This should be on the list,’ rather than just sit back and let others discuss it,” said Trevor Dummer, and Associate Professor in the Cancer Prevention Centre at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health.

Leona Aglukkaq, the Office of Environment Minister, also stated Canada will not oppose the inclusion of asbestos in the UN Treaty. The Conservative government isn’t expected to completely support the inclusion either. When parties met in 2013, the country was neutral as to adding asbestos to the list.

Canada has a long-standing history involving asbestos that has continued into the present. The country was once the world’s top producer of asbestos. About five years ago, about 100,000 tons were still produced in Quebec.

There is a town called Asbestos in Quebec where the country’s largest asbestos mine and the town’s largest employer, the Jeffery Mine, is located. Although Canada closed its last mine in late 2011, last year it imported $6 million worth of asbestos products, up from $4.9 million the previous year.

A $58 million loan was in the works to reopen the mines with government backing, but Parti Québécois candidate Pauline Marios won the Canadian elections a few years ago, recognized the dangers of asbestos, and vowed to put the money toward diversifying employment in the region instead.

Canada has increased its use and continues to utilize the toxic substance, especially in the form of automobile brake lining, brake pads, and some construction materials. Dr. Dummer said as the products deteriorate, the asbestos fibers within them could become airborne and turn into a health risk for any mechanic, construction worker, or home renovator working with the products.

“[Asbestos exposure] has been extremely well studied in dozens and dozens of very long-term studies that allow us to make statements…that there are at least two lung cancers for every case of mesothelioma,” said the Director of the Occupational Cancer Research Centre, Paul Demers, at Cancer Care Ontario.

Asbestos is classified as a serious carcinogen known to cause mesothelioma cancer, especially in the lungs, according to the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. Due to the long latency period before becoming diagnosed, Canada is not expected to experience the effects for many years, but currently, asbestos exposure is the top on-the-job killer in Canada with about 5,000 approved deaths since 1996.

“There aren’t really a lot of areas that are poorly understood about asbestos anymore. It’s just a matter of moving onto prevention,” said Demers.