Prof’s editorial blasts Canada’s asbestos trade

October 30, 2008

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By Stuart Colcleugh

SFU adjunct professor David Boyd co-wrote a damning editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) Oct. 21 lambasting the Canadian government for promoting Quebec’s asbestos industry abroad while severely limiting the cancer-causing product’s use at home.

The strongly worded indictment entitled Asbestos mortality: a Canadian export suggests the government "knows what it is doing is shameful and wrong" and likens Canada’s role as an asbestos promoter to that of an arms trader.

"In a practice that reeks of hypocrisy," it says, "Canada has limited the use of asbestos to prevent the exposure of Canadians to the danger, but it continues to be the world’s second-largest exporter of asbestos."

The editorial appeared in advance of talks that began in Rome Oct. 27 on a proposed amendment to the Rotterdam Convention governing trade in harmful materials that would add the chrysotile form of asbestos to the world’s list of most dangerous substances.

Ottawa opposes the amendment, which would require Canada to officially notify and receive informed consent from importing governments before shipping its chrysotile asbestos to their countries. Chrysotile is the only type of asbestos still traded on the international market.

The editorial, which Boyd co-authored with CMAJ deputy science editor Matthew B. Stanbrook and University of Ottawa professor Amir Attaran, marks the first time Canada’s medical association journal has publicly and strongly criticized Ottawa’s asbestos stance.

The writers note that Health Canada received a report last March from an international committee of scientific experts it convened a year ago to study the risks of chrysotile exposure. But they claim the report and its findings have been kept secret by the prime minister’s office.

"For Canada to export asbestos to poor countries that lack the capacity to use it safely is inexplicable," the editorial says. "But to descend several steps further to suppress the results of an expert committee… and oppose even the Rotterdam Convention’s simple rule of politeness is inexcusable.

"Canada’s government seems to have calculated that it is better for the country’s asbestos industry to do business under the radar like arms traders, regardless of the deadly consequences. What clearer indication could there be that the government knows what it is doing is shameful and wrong?"

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