Many extraordinary stories surround asbestos - that deadly mineral fibre - but perhaps none more remarkable and so little known as Canada's involvement with the product. For over a hundred years, Canada has been one of the main global suppliers of white asbestos (or chrysotile, to give it its technical term). Quebec's vast mines and mills fed asbestos fibre to the world's leading asbestos companies in the USA and Europe. In these countries, asbestos users enjoyed the benefits of the fire-resistant material, but soon found out that these came at a frightening cost. Canadian fibre (like any type of asbestos) causes asbestosis (lung scarring) and cancers. After the 1960s, when the virulent asbestos cancer mesothelioma began to strike with increasing frequency, industries in North America and Europe eventually stopped buying Canadian fibre and governments increasingly banned it.
As Kathleen Ruff shows in this admirable appraisal, the carcinogenicity of asbestos made little difference in Canada, where the industry, the government, physicians and even some trade unions refused to believe that white asbestos was harmful. Not only did Canadian vested interests energetically defend the product in the 1960s and 1970s - when the output of Canadian asbestos mines soared - but later, as world demand diminished, they shifted their sales pitch to the developing world. At the heart of this defence was the Asbestos Institute (now the Chrysotile Institute) - a government and industry-funded public relations group that since the 1980s has orchestrated campaigns abroad that have been aimed at extending Canada's chrysotile exports.
The Institute's defence involves a particular brand of Canadian science. Throughout the twentieth-century, the Canadian asbestos industry and its scientific supporters have proclaimed that asbestos -related disease was rare (or non-existent) in Canada, that local workers had 'immunity' to the mineral, and that any disease was due to other types of contamination. Even today, Canada asserts - while not using the product itself - that white asbestos is harmless and can be utilised under 'controlled' conditions. The spuriousness of these claims is revealed in this report. It shows that the Canadian industry only survives by a mixture of bad science, political manipulation, and disregard for the health of workers. The only logical conclusion, as Ruff points out, is to 'stop exporting asbestos'. It is to be hoped that this report helps achieve that aim.
Dr Geoffrey Tweedale, Co-Author, Defending the Indefensible: The Global Asbestos Industry and Its Fight for Survival
Dr Richard A. Lemen, Assistant Surgeon General, United States Public Health Service (ret'd)
Dr T.K. Joshi, Director Occupational and Environmental Medicine Programme, Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health, New Delhi, India
Dr Domyung Paek, Professor, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, School of Public Health, Seoul National University, Korea
Dr Colin L. Soskolne, Professor, School of Public Health, University of Alberta, Canada
Professor J E Myers, Director: Occupational and Environmental Health Research Unit, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town, South Africa
Dr. Iman Nuwayhid, Professor of Occupational Health, Faculty of Health Sciences, American University of Beirut, Lebanon
Brief History of Asbestos: Hiding the Dangers in the Name of Profits
How the Canadian Government has Marketed Asbestos to Developing Countries
World Call of Conscience to Prime Minister Harper