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The Politics of Asbestos

CBC Radio’s The Current, April 17, 2009

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Show Description:

It was once thought to be a magical material. By the 1970s, it was used in everything from building materials to coffee pots, from hair dryers to potting soil. But these days, Chrysotile Asbestos no longer enjoys the reputation it once had.

Canada, and specifically Quebec, has been mining and exporting the fibrous material for decades. Our government acknowledges it can be hazardous, but it says it can be used safely. However, a number of countries have banned it. The World Health Organization says it can cause cancer.

So in November of 2007, our government asked a group of international scientists to study the risks of Chrysotile Asbestos. Those scientists were told by Health Canada the findings would be made public.

After reviewing the recent scientific literature they affirmed what previous research has said about Chrysotile Asbestos being hazardous. And they reiterated that it had a “strong relationship” to lung cancer. The scientists handed their report to the government in March 2008 and waited to see it posted on the Health Canada website. It never was.

Last week, due to an Access to Information request, a reporter for Montreal’s La Presse was able to obtain a copy of the report. Shortly after that, Canada’s Public Works Minister Christian Paradis, said the scientists had “irreconcilable positions”. He said there was no reason to change Canada’s policy on Chrysotile Asbestos.

Dr. Trevor Ogden, was the Chair of the Committee commissioned by Health Canada to assess the risks of chrysolite asbestos. He’s also a scientist with the British government with considerable experience with asbestos research. Today, he’s the editor of the journal The Annals of Occupational Hygiene. He was in Oxford, England.

The Current requested an interview with the Minister of Health, Leona Aglukaaq. We were told she was traveling this morning. Despite repeated attempts to accommodate her schedule, including offering to tape an interview earlier this morning or yesterday afternoon, she was still not available.

The Current also requested an interview with Christian Paradis, the Minister of Public Works who has been speaking about the report obtained by La Presse. Mr. Paradis’ riding includes Thetford Mines, the centre of Canada’s asbestos mining industry.

Mr. Paradis is in his riding today. Because there is poor cell phone reception in his area, we were told he would not be available for an interview this morning. He was also not available yesterday.

Chrysotile Asbestos is a politically sensitive issue in Canada, and Kathleen Ruff is concerned about how the government is handling the Health Canada report. She’s is the Senior advisor of human rights for the Rideau Institute on International Affairs. That’s a public policy research and advocacy group in Ottawa. We reached her in Smithers B.C. this morning.

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CBC Radio’s “The Current” Website:
http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/2009/200904/20090417.html