Exporting hazard: Safety advocates question Canada’s asbestos double standard

When Alan D. Quilley was a child, he played with asbestos modelling clay. As a young tradesman working on the railway, he fashioned insulation panels for box cars out of asbestos, breaking asbestos sheets by hand.

Today, Quilley is a health and safety specialist — a Canadian registered safety professional, president of Safety Results Ltd. and author of The Emperor Has No Hard Hat – Achieving REAL Workplace Safety Results — who understands very well the dangers of asbestos, especially when it’s handled improperly.

But it seems the Canadian government isn’t quite on the same page. And some safety professionals are fed up.

“We know the right thing to do, but it it’s not the easy thing to do,” Quilley says.

It’s no secret that although the government has essentially banned the use of the material in this country — asbestos has been linked to lung cancer and other diseases — the feds still allow asbestos manufacturers to sell their product in third-world countries, where the material is used in roofing and other construction.

Federal literature suggests that Canada has taken a terribly pragmatic view: asbestos is safe when handled right; as long as buyers apply proper procedures, they’ll be fine.

But as feature stories in the Toronto Star and by the CBC have shown, construction outfits in third-world countries don’t necessarily apply proper procedures — and Canada has no way to make sure they do.

“It’s a bit like giving a loaded gun to someone you know doesn’t have the capability nor the knowledge to avoid shooting themselves... then blame them for the ‘accident,’” Quilley wrote in correspondence with Tim Uppal, Member of Parliament (MP) for Edmonton-Sherwood Park.

That Quilley wrote to Uppal in the first place indicates just how frustrated he is with the situation. “I think we’re all responsible for letting the government know what we think,” he says in a phone interview.

He isn’t alone. Other health professionals are raising their voices against what might be a national embarrassment.

“Embarrassment” is the word
In fact, “embarrassment” comes up often in conversations with safety specialists concerning asbestos.

“Personally, I’m embarrassed when I discuss this issue with my European counterparts or other international health and safety professionals,” says Jason Hoffman, past president of the Occupational Hygiene Association of Ontario (OHAO).

Hoffman brought the issue to the attention of OHAO members in an editorial in the organization’s newsletter last fall. He pointed out that Canada ships about 180,000 tons of asbestos a year, and that as far as health professionals outside of Canada are concerned, our national asbestos export business is baffling. He also brought to light a controversial report that some say the federal government quietly quashed for a convenient period of time.

In March 2008, a panel of experts gave Health Canada a report on asbestos — a comparison of different research methods concerning the material. But the federal department didn’t release the document.

The same year, the feds were preparing for the Rotterdam Convention — that’s where governments of various countries meet to develop regulations for hazardous materials. During the 2008 convention, Canada’s government successfully lobbied against new rules for asbestos export and sale.

In the May 2009 issue of Annals of Occupational Hygiene, its editor Trevor Ogden shared his thoughts on the government’s seeming unwillingness to release the asbestos report right away. “We do not know why this did not happen, but speculate that it is due to a perceived threat to Canadian chrysotile production.” wrote Ogden, who also chairs the expert panel that developed the report. Chrysotile is a type of asbestos.
“Several applications for the report were made under the Canadian Access to Information Act, and it was finally released on 9 April 2009, just before the Easter holiday.”

Did Health Canada sit on the asbestos report to simplify the government’s Rotterdam plan? The department didn’t meet our request for an interview. But we do get a sense of what the government might have said, thanks to its response to a letter sent to the Auditor General of Canada about the asbestos double standard.

Concerned citizen
Frank Woodcock, a concerned citizen from Simcoe, Ont., wrote the auditor general in June 2009 to inquire as to why the report was delayed, and, “If asbestos use is banned in Canada, how can Canada condone selling Canadian asbestos to foreign countries?”

Health Canada’s response, published on the auditor general’s website, said the government needed time to consult with federal and provincial stakeholders before releasing the report. It added that asbestos isn’t exactly banned in Canada — it’s just strictly controlled, and prohibited in certain cases, under the Hazardous Products Act.

Health Canada also said another department — Natural Resources Canada (NRC) — would provide more information. But NRC’s response doesn’t appear on the auditor general’s website. The department didn’t meet our request for an interview.

Lorraine Shaw spoke to us via e-mail to explain what her organization is doing about the asbestos situation. President of the Canadian Council of Occupational Hygiene (CCOH), she directed us to a form letter that the organization has developed for members to mail to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

It calls Canada’s asbestos export business “indefensible,” noting that asbestos exposure can lead to illnesses such as asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer. The letter urges Harper to support Nathan Cullen’s (MP, Skeena-Bulkley Valley, B.C.) Bill C-399 to ban all forms of asbestos.

You’ll find the letter on the CCOH’s website. “The CCOH decided the best action to take was to write to the prime minister, expressing our opinion on the issue,” Shaw says, adding that she already sent it on behalf of the organization.

The CCOH urges other health and safety professionals to send their own. “We chose this method because the prime minister has to respond to letters sent to him. I’m not sure about the requirement to respond to e-mails.”

Health professionals aren’t the only ones discussing asbestos. On the other side, the Chrysotile Institute — reportedly funded by the federal government alongside asbestos mine operators — talks about the importance of regulating the material to ensure it’s used properly. The asbestos industry could become a model for controlling potentially hazardous substances to ensure the benefits are realized safely, the institute says on its website.

Quilley, for one, says he believes banning asbestos export is just part of the answer. We also need to consider alternatives for users. As the Star pointed out in its asbestos feature late last year, asbestos roofs are better than tin or tarp roofs for houses in third-world countries. So, if not asbestos — what?

“We should be on the side of helping them come up with alternatives,” Quilley says.

Stefan Dubowski is a freelance writer in Ottawa. You can reach him via e-mail at [email protected].