Quebec’s asbestos industry faces off against health experts

Asbestos (chrysotile)
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Medical  experts working for the Quebec government’s National Public Health Institute (INSPQ) are “a little gang of Talibans”, charges Bernard Coulombe, president of the Jeffrey asbestos mine.

Coulombe is hoping to sign a deal with investors to open up a new underground asbestos mine in Asbestos, Quebec in 2010. The present open-pit Jeffrey mine has run out of asbestos and is no longer operating. The underground mine is 90% complete.and would tap into a large new asbestos deposit, thus giving the industry a new 50-year lease on life.

The INSPQ opposes its own government’s policy of increased use of chrysotile asbestos (the only form of asbestos sold commercially in the world today), citing increasing numbers of asbestos-related deaths in Quebec, particularly among construction workers. Coulombe claims that chrysotile asbestos can be safely used and that it has caused no harm to workers in Quebec since 1970. The INSPQ dismisses this view as lacking any scientific credibility, thereby jeopardizing new investment and attracting the ire of Coulombe.

The asbestos industry has not attacked the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Cancer Society, the World Health Organization, the Canadian Labour Congress, who have all said that chrysotile asbestos must be banned. Instead, the industry has targeted Quebec public servants, who are unable to defend themselves and are vulnerable to political pressure from their employer.

“One of the favourite tactics of the asbestos industry is misinformation and bullying; these make a toxic combination,” said Dr Fernand Turcotte, Professeur Emeritus of Public Health at the Faculty of Medicine, Université Laval.

Fifteen health professionals, who work for Quebec public health agencies and/or are professors from the University of Montreal, Laval University and Sherbrooke University, recently issued a public statement challenging the misinformation put out by the asbestos industry and calling for an end to the mining, use and export of asbestos.

“People across Canada and around the world, who are trying to end the tragedy of asbestos-caused disease and death, owe a big debt of gratitude to the courage and integrity of Quebec’s health professionals for blowing the whistle on the asbestos industry,” said John Bennett, Executive Director, Sierra Club Canada.

“It is incomprehensible that Quebec’s Premier Charest and Prime Minister Harper are supporting the dangerous nonsense put forward by the asbestos industry and rejecting credible scientific organizations, such as the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Cancer Society and the World Health Organization, who have all called for asbestos to be banned,” said Dr Kapil Khatter, President of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

“We are calling on Premier Charest and PM Harper to do the right thing and put public health ahead of self-serving political games,” said Kathleen Ruff, senior human rights advisor for the Rideau Institute.

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