Why Canada is finally distancing itself from asbestos mining and exporting

By Tim Povtak

The national asbestos nightmare isn’t over just yet – the suffering will continue for decades, unfortunately – but at least now the healing can begin.

Canadians can start to be proud of their government again. One of the worst environmental stains in the country’s history has been removed.

The hotly-debated, on-again, off-again governmental loan guarantee to reopen the Jeffrey Mine in the town of Asbestos, Quebec, was officially killed in September, ending any threat of a last-gasp comeback for a cruel but dying industry.

And while the new leadership in Quebec cancelled the public loan, the federal government in Ottawa also announced it finally will give up its long-standing resistance to United Nations guidelines that restrict the use and curb the international shipping of asbestos.

For years, Canada has used its United Nations veto power and prevented chrysotile asbestos from being listed as a hazardous substance by the international Rotterdam Convention, which would have made it much tougher and costlier to export.

Canada was the last Western country to be profiting from asbestos, a naturally-occurring mineral that once was so valued but later became so abhorred because of the pain and suffering and death caused by its toxicity.

Asbestos exposure is the primary cause of mesothelioma cancer and a variety of other respiratory illnesses. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 107,000 people die annually from asbestos exposure.

The number of Canadians who have died from asbestos diseases is difficult to track, but it’s safe to assume that tens of thousands have died, either from working in or living near the asbestos mines, or from exposure to the myriad products in which it was used.

The Canadian Cancer Society and the Quebec Medical Association have denounced the mining and use of it for years, and particularly the plans to reopen either of the last two mines that were closed in 2011.

More than 50 countries around the world have banned asbestos. Many others, like the United States and Canada, have severely restricted its use. And only a few continued to mine it, mostly to profit on the exportation to still-developing countries like Vietnam, India, China and Mexico.

“Asbestos has killed and is still killing Quebeckers,” said Daniel Green, a toxicologist from Montreal. “It should not leave the ground and kill people in other countries.”

The difficulty in tracking asbestos deaths comes from the long latency period between initial exposure to the symptoms that arise from mesothelioma cancer. It can take up to 50 years after being exposed before the cancer forms and is diagnosed. And often it is not uncovered until it has spread through the chest. There is no cure for mesothelioma, but survivors are managing the disease.

The end of the asbestos era in Canada will be both a sad and glad time for the country. Quebec’s history with asbestos is long and storied, beginning in 1870 and later developing into a major economic boom for an entire region. By the late 1980s, mines were producing 700,000 tons annually.

For much of the 20th century, asbestos was a staple in industrialized countries, hailed for its versatility and affordability, and Canada was profiting from huge natural deposits. Asbestos was a miracle mineral because it could insulate and fireproof almost anything. There were an estimated 4,000 different products where it was used. Quebec once boasted the largest open-pit mine in the world, and ranked among the largest producers for many years.

But slow realization – which intensified in the 1970s – of the human suffering it was causing, turned the pride into shame, especially in the last 20 years. By then, 90 percent of the asbestos was being exported because Canadians already knew how dangerous it was.

Earlier in 2012, when the Liberal Party looked like it would re-launch the industry with a $58 million loan guarantee, there was talk of 400 new jobs and 20 more years of prosperity for the mine.

But new Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, in her inaugural speech in September, made it clear that the loan guarantee for the mine would be cancelled, committing to higher standards of environmental protection in a number of areas.

The loan guarantees still would be coming to Quebec for economic development, but not to help export a deadly product, striking a final death blow to the asbestos industry in Canada.

An award winning reporter and writer, Tim Povtak is a senior content writer for The Mesothelioma Center. He previously worked at the Orlando Sentinel and then at AOL.