MONTREAL — The lingering dangers caused by exposure to asbestos has prompted the Canadian Cancer Society to join a growing call for the federal government to ban the use and exportation of the fire-retarding mineral, The Canadian Press has learned. 

The society believes a comprehensive strategy is needed to address the health consequences of a substance that is said to kill thousands of people in Canada and around the world.

"The Canadian Cancer Society is calling for our governments to start work on developing a comprehensive strategy that will lead to Canadians no longer being exposed to asbestos," Dr. Barbara Whylie, the group's CEO, said in an interview Wednesday.

Exposure to asbestos has been linked to an increased risk of lung cancer, mesothelioma, asbestosis, laryngeal cancer, cancers of the gastrointestinal tract and other diseases.

It is believed that asbestos fibres attract cancer-causing agents after they enter the lungs. In many cases, the latency period can be 20 to 30 years after exposure, she said.

The World Health Organization says that about 125 million people are exposed to asbestos at work and that at least 90,000 die annually from asbestos-related diseases.

In Canada, almost one-third of the 1,097 workplace deaths in 2005 were attributed to asbestos, said the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.

The cancer society's position brings it in line with labour unions, environmentalists, medical and scientific associations and victims' groups that have long called for a ban.

Asbestos defenders criticized the society's move, arguing that the product is safe when properly used. They also say no distinction is made between the impact of chrysotile and more deadly forms of asbestos – crecodolite and amosite – which have already been banned.

The use of asbestos in building insulation has long been eliminated in Canada, although many older buildings still contain the material.

Health Canada says asbestos is safe as long as it's in a "controlled use." That means it should be encapsulated in concrete or other materials that prevent the fibres from becoming airborne and inhaled.

Asbestos is a strong, heat resistant, flexible and inexpensive material that has been mined for more than a century. It can be woven, spun and bonded into many products and pressed to form paper.

Today, it is used primarily in making cement blocks, automobile brake pads and sewer and water pipes.

Labelling the ban movement as naive environmental idealism, asbestos advocates claimed a global prohibition would hurt Quebec mining communities and benefit the chemical industry which produces alternative substances that have unproven safety records.

Jacques Dunnigan, a retired professor of toxicology at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec, said the use of chrysotile is safe.

"Workers in the mines of Thetford or Asbestos or users of finished products such as brake linings . . . because they are exposed to very low levels of Chrysotile only, the risk is practically nil," he said in an interview.

Dunnigan claimed the Canadian Cancer Society has been pressured to act by the international ban asbestos movement, which seeks a complete elimination of all fibre types.

Whylie said the non-profit agency's long experience fighting tobacco use has prompted its call for a comprehensive approach to banning asbestos.

She said the group was prompted to act now to push the Canadian government to ratify in August 2008 the Rotterdam convention on the management of hazardous materials between countries.

The potential health impact of past asbestos exposure could soon be felt, along with the impact of the degradation of buildings containing the insulator, she said.

"I don't know if it's a sleeping giant but it certainly is a health risk that continues to be there that doesn't need to be there," Whylie said.

The co-founder of a group called Ban Asbestos Canada praised the cancer group's move.

"It's absolutely wonderful to see them taking a position on this because the fact is that thousands of people are dying needlessly from completely preventable cancer the world over and our policies here have a huge influence on the policies in developing countries and literally thousands of people are being exposed to this substance unnecessarily," said Kyla Sentes.

Successive Canadian governments have defended the industry against global calls for restrictions in the product's use.

In 1999, the former Liberal government went to the World Trade Organization to challenge the ban on asbestos in France.

Canada has been among the world's leading producers of asbestos for decades. In 2002, it exported 235,000 tonnes of crude and milled asbestos worth $140 million.

Canada is believed to have produced more than 65 million tonnes of asbestos since mining began in 1878.

More than 90 per cent of the product mined exclusively in Quebec is exported to some 60 counties in the developing world, lead by India, Indonesia and Thailand.

The mining of chrysotile or white asbestos, has been dramatically curtailed since its use peaked in 1973. World use has dropped by half in the 1990s as a ban spread among about 40 countries such as Australia, Saudi Arabia, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Gabon and members of the European Union.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued regulations to phase out the use of almost all asbestos products in 1989. But the rules were overturned in court two years later.

Russia, Kazakhstan, Zimbabwe and Brazil have overtaken Canada as the leading global producers.

Only a few hundred workers continue to mine asbestos, in the area surrounding Thetford Mines, Que.

In an e-mail to the Canadian Press, a spokesman for Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn suggested an outright ban on all forms of asbestos is not planned.

"Comprehensive reviews of scientific studies over the last 40 years, has proven chrysotile to be a less potent carcinogen than other forms of asbestos," the e-mail said. "Furthermore, at the 2006 Rotterdam Convention, Canada, along with other countries, opposed the listing of chrysotile under the Prior Informed Consent Procedure."

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