Ottawa – The Canadian Cancer Society has rejected long-held federal policy on asbestos and called for a ban on the use and export of the cancer-causing material still being mined in Quebec.
“The society believes that exposure to asbestos must stop so that asbestos-related diseases can be eliminated,” Barbara Whylie, CEO of the Canadian Cancer Society, said in a news release on Wednesday.
The society, which did not set a deadline for the ban, recommended a “fair and just transitional plan” for communities affected by eliminating asbestos mining”I’m just about bursting with joy,” said NDP MP Pat Martin, a former asbestos mineworker who calls asbestos “the greatest industrial killer” the world has seen.
Mr. Martin praised the cancer society for rejecting a policy that, he says, has been kept in place by successive federal governments because they do not want to risk offending Quebec. It is the only place in Canada where asbestos is mined and exported, mostly to underdeveloped countries.
“This isn’t about reason or logic,” Mr. Martin said in a telephone interview yesterday. “It’s all about Quebec politics.”
Within the Harper government, however, the society’s new position was met with a near wall of silence.
Health Minister Tony Clement’s office referred all questions to Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn.
Mr. Lunn issued a one-paragraph statement defending the status quo on grounds chrysotile asbestos, the only type mined in Quebec, is “safe when properly used.”
He also confirmed the government had last year opposed listing chrysotile asbestos on an international list of the most toxic substances.
“Comprehensive reviews of scientific studies over the last 40 years have proven the product is safe when properly used,” Mr. Lunn said.
A 2006 report by the Centre for the Study of Living standards said 30% of workplace fatalities in 2004 were asbestos related. It also said the fatality rate from asbestos had risen to 1.8 per 100,000 workers in 2004 from 0.4 in 1996.
Mr. Martin said it was time a group as credible as the Canadian Cancer Society “debunked the myth” that chrysotile asbestos is safer than other types of asbestos.
In its statement, the society made no special case for chrysotile asbestos.
Instead, it said it was the most commonly used form of asbestos in the world, a substance that has been linked to lung cancers, asbestosis and a host of other diseases.
Green party leader Elizabeth May denounced the government’s approach.
“Canada’s efforts to block an international asbestos ban are a disgrace and a smear on our reputation,” she said in a statement yesterday.
“Asbestos is toxic to the environment and human health – no level is safe,” the Green party leader said.
Ms. May said that supports should be provided for the fewer than 900 workers employed in the asbestos industry as part of a comprehensive asbestos program that should include removing asbestos from existing structures.
A spokeswoman for the Cancer Society said no one was available to elaborate on why the organization’s board of directors had decided to adopt a new policy.
In recent months, the Cancer Society has been among the Harper government’s biggest cheerleaders for living up to its campaign commitment to provide $260-million over five years for a national cancer strategy for spending on everything from surveillance and screening to prevention and palliative care.