Canadian health group demands disclosure on asbestos

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For the past year, the Canadian Public Health Association has sought details on the financial relationship between Canada’s Ministry of Natural Resources and the Chrysotile Institute, a Montreal-based asbestos lobby group that figures prominently in the just-released ICIJ/BBC investigation, Dangers in the Dust.

The CPHA’s policy director, James Chauvin, told ICIJ that the institute was “polite” in its responses to inquiries and did send “a pile of technical manuals.” But the manuals shed no light on how C$20 million in federal funds has been spent over the past quarter-century, Chauvin said, and the information wasn’t available on the ministry’s website.

In the wake of ICIJ and BBC revelations that the institute plays a pivotal role in the marketing of white, or chrysotile, asbestos in developing nations, the CPHA has decided to push harder. It wants a copy of the contract between the ministry and the lobby group and “any reports on the utilization and results achieved from past federal funds provided to the institute.” The association will ask for the documents in a letter to the ministry, Chauvin said, and will file an Access to Information Act request if necessary.

Neither the ministry nor the institute responded to ICIJ requests for comment.

Chrysotile has been mined in Quebec for decades, and Canada remains a major supplier of raw fiber to countries like India and Mexico. In recent years, however, the CPHA and other public-interest groups have called for a halt to such exports, noting that asbestos has been linked to deadly diseases such as mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis, and that protections for workers in the developing world are often lacking. Officials with the federal and provincial governments support the status quo, saying they believe white asbestos can be used safely abroad.

Last month, the World Health Organization revised its estimate of the number of asbestos-related deaths among workers from 90,000 annually to 107,000 – a nearly 20 percent jump.

Parties on both sides of the debate in Canada are waiting anxiously to see whether Quebec’s Ministry of Economic Development, Innovation and Export Trade provides a C$58 million loan guarantee to the struggling Jeffrey Mine, northeast of Montreal. The mine’s owner told the Canadian media he will have trouble staying in business without the subsidy and blamed adverse publicity from the ICIJ/BBC series and Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff – who proposed an export ban — for hurting his chances.

Still, few in Canada would be surprised if the loan guarantee went through.

“There’s a lot of entrenched defensiveness about asbestos,” said the CPHA’s Chauvin, who stresses that mining communities must be taken care of in case of a ban on exports. “We urge governments to provide adequate compensation to families and communities, including funds to support the transition from asbestos mining to alternative and sustainable economic activities.”

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