Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s policy on asbestos amounts to exporting disease and death to people who are poorer and more vulnerable than Canadians.
Chrysotile asbestos, the mineral mined in Canada, has long been known as killer, more deadly than cigarette smoke.
Fibres that make up the rock — 1,000 times finer than a human hair — can pass through the safety masks of people mining or using it.
Those fibres become deeply ingested in lungs and eventually causing cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis — a horrible affliction that hardens lungs and suffocates its victims.
Asbestos is extremely fire resistant, which made it a popular construction material in generations past. When its carcinogenic properties became widely understood, asbestos was severely restricted in the developed world.
Now it’s largely confined to underdeveloped nations.
Almost two-thirds of global asbestos use is now in Asia.
Many of those nations, which have the fastest growing economies and the most building starts, do not record asbestos use. Health risks there cannot be measured.
Harper’s government, like its predecessors, continues to insist that when chrysotile is mined and used properly, it can be safe.
In the developing world, where governments are hard pressed to feed and house their own people, rules governing asbestos are non-existent, loosely written or poorly enforced.
One common use for asbestos is thin, cheap roofing tiles. They are installed on many Asian factories, where workers are obliged to breathe air laden with toxic fibres coming off the roof of their cramped workplaces.
Harper’s government insists on serving that market, safety be damned.
In 2005, the World Health Organization reported that 125 million people are exposed to asbestos in their workplace, 90,000 die every year and thousands more die from asbestos exposure outside of work.
There are two chrysotile mines in Canada, both in Quebec. One is shuttered, hoping for a multimillion-dollar provincial loan guarantee to restart operations, while the second has been fearing a similar fate.
The federal riding housing that mine is held by a Conservative member of Parliament who won his seat partly on the pledge that a Harper government would not shut it down.
Apparently it’s OK to sell deadly products to nations if they are poor and far enough away that any guilt can be assuaged by jobs, distance and wilful ignorance.
The chief markets for mined Canadian asbestos are India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Brazil. Together, sales to our top 10 export nations amount to about $92 million annually.
That’s not chicken feed. But you can work around chicken feed, probably even eat it without too much harm.
You can’t do that with asbestos.
Harper’s government seems blind to these harsh facts.
This week, it tried to hide other salient ones.
At an international conference in Switzerland, the Canadian government moved alone to block chrysotile asbestos from being listed as a hazardous chemical in a United Nations treaty, called the Rotterdam Convention.
That was a change from past practice.
Previously, our government has sat on its hands, letting poor nations that process Canadian asbestos publicly oppose listing it as hazardous.
This week however, Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and India, which initially objected to having chrysotile listed, agreed to do precisely that.
That left Canada to block its inclusion.
On Wednesday, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver staunchly asserted that Canada would not move solo to block chrysotile from being listed.
Even after the UN reported that’s precisely what Canada did, Environment Canada refused to acknowledge that fact.
The Rotterdam Convention does not forbid mining, manufacturing or selling products made from chrysotile.
It does oblige nations importing asbestos to acknowledge the health risks and take precautions to minimize them.
That’s precisely what our homegrown Canadian regulations say. Because asbestos can be so dangerous, however, their effect is to prevent the manufacture or sale of asbestos products in Canada.
Chuck Strahl, the former stalwart friend and parliamentary ally of Harper, has cancer from ingesting asbestos fibres while working in a British Columbia lumber camp years ago. Brakes on the huge machines he drove were made of asbestos.
Strahl feels lucky that his cancer has not grown, but says Canada is wrong in blocking the Rotterdam Convention.
Right now, asbestos is being removed from Parliament, the prime minister’s workplace, because it’s a grave health risk.
Does Harper dare to publicly tell Strahl that he is wrong?
Or will his silence on this topic tell Strahl, other Canadians and the developing world that he cares less about health for millions of people than preserving a dying and killing industry.
Joe McLaughlin is the retired former managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.