Open letter: Condemning the Conservative government’s asbestos policy

PSAC member Howard Willems writes an open letter to all Conservative MPs and national media regarding the Conservative government’s asbestos policy and exporting of asbestos to developing Southeast Asian countries.

An Open Letter to all Conservative Members of Parliament
Dear Members of Parliament,
I am responding in detail to a letter sent to me from my Member of Parliament (Hon. Lynne Yellich) pertaining to the Conservative asbestos policy and exporting of asbestos to developing Southeast Asian countries. The Conservative asbestos policy noted that chrysotile asbestos mined in Québec is a weak carcinogen subject to ‘safe handling’ by ‘controlled use,’ and the technological capacity to reduce dust exposure to almost zero exists. Do adequate preventive measures exist to protect workers and the public from exposure and can Canada scientifically and morally defend its current asbestos policy? 
The substance of your asbestos policy has been challenged by every major scientific and public health organization both in Canada and globally. For instance, all United Nations bodies responsible for occupational and public health have reviewed these assertions made by the Québec asbestos industry and its lobby organization—the Chrysotile Institute, formerly the Asbestos Institute. All these organizations have publicly stated that the concept of ‘controlled use’ is based on the erroneous belief that, in developing countries the legal framework exists to prevent asbestos-related diseases. We know that in these importing states the regulatory capacity, in fact, does not exist. After all, nor does it exist in Canada. The Executive Director of the Occupational Health & Safety Branch in Saskatchewan, 1973-1981, was responsible for introducing our first asbestos legislation in 1977. The director has publicly stated then and continues to do so now that it is not possible to prevent exposure to workers or the public in our province. 
A recent two-year government study in Québec showed that there was a 100% failure rate to practice ‘safe use’ standards. It lacks credibility to claim that strict standards are being practiced in the developing world where we send our asbestos. A Globe & Mail report (October 27, 2007) documented workers handling Canadian asbestos in India, our largest importer, were without any protection whatsoever. There have been numerous reports supporting this assertion. A CBC documentary further presented evidence showing that this is not an isolated but general condition. And we must keep in mind there is no safe level for any carcinogen. 
Do you and I not have a moral responsibility for the lower class Indians handling our asbestos? Leading public health physicians in India have pleaded for Canada to ban asbestos citing a public health crisis in their country. 
This catastrophe, however, is also global. The International Labour Organization and the World Health Organization have calculated that over 107, 000 human beings suffer premature deaths from asbestos-related cancers and diseases annually. The World Health Organization further estimates between five and 10 million people will ultimately die from asbestos exposure. Asbestos-related cancers account for 54 per cent of all occupational cancers globally. 
In Canada, asbestos-related disease is the most significant contributor to occupational mortality. A 2004 report found rates of mesothelioma in Québec, a cancer of the pleural lining, always caused by asbestos and nearly always fatal, to be 9.5 times greater in men than for the rest of Canada and the rate of women to be amongst the highest in the world. Keep in mind, asbestos is a community disease that affects women and children. In India, those handling asbestos are considerably more vulnerable to this lethal carcinogen because of childhood diseases and poor nutrition. Also, the latency period is thus much shorter than in developed countries and the victims are without worker’s compensation or health care. 
The Indian government this year supported the listing of chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous chemical substance at the U.N. Rotterdam Convention, June 24-26, 2011 in Geneva. This U.N. Convention, founded in 2000, makes it legally compulsory for asbestos producing countries to warn importing states of the health risks associated with chrysotile asbestos. The Convention’s Scientific and Expert Committee called for the inclusion of chrysotile asbestos on the list requiring Canada, for instance, to inform India and other importing states of the dangers associated with asbestos. Canada, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Vietnam voted against the listing. 
Naturally, there was outrage by both European and African nations who then proposed an emergency moral resolution to override Canada’s position. There were 143 participants to the Convention this year. Keep in mind, that the recommendation of the Scientific Committee is merely a “right to know” provision and not a ban. 
Today 52 countries have already banned asbestos. They include all 27 European Union nations and all industrial open market countries with independent scientific communities. Yet, the Conservative government again opposed the listing as they have done since the beginning of the U.N. Rotterdam Treaty. 
As representatives of the Canadian public, I must ask you for your position on the listing of Chrysotile, and to remind you that the information in your asbestos policy merely states the position of the Chrysotile Institute, which is a registered lobby group without any scientific credentials. It is patterned on the Tobacco Council and employs the same indoctrination and propaganda strategies. How is it possible that the Conservative government has accepted the analysis of the Chrysotile Institute which is contrary to all United Nations bodies responsible for occupational and public health? They include: 
This is the most prestigious and esteemed global scientific body responsible for the assessment of all cancers. The IARC has categorically said that all kinds of asbestos are carcinogenic; there is no safe level, and this is based on both empirical as well as human evidence. The World Health Organization has also made it clear that all kinds of asbestos are carcinogenic and should be banned. These organizations have reviewed the evidence supporting the claims of the Chrysotile Institute and have found them to be either industry biased or junk science.
The following reputable Canadian and Québec organizations call for the ban of asbestos: 
These are but some of the organizations that take issue with the substance of the Conservative asbestos policy, I could name over one hundred reputable physicians, researchers and academics as well.
(1) Do you take issue with any of the above professional societies who propose the ban of all kinds of asbestos and the rejection of the claims of the Chrysotile Institute?
(2) Is there anything in my letter to you that you find problematic or factually incorrect?
(3) Your Conservative asbestos policy says nothing about the Rotterdam Convention. What is your position?
I anticipate your response to my letter since the matter is of enormous importance to me. I recently had a lung removed because of an asbestos-related cancer. Asbestos is a life and death matter for me!
I have been told that Conservative officials have ceased replying to queries about asbestos, so I am appealing to your conscience.
Howard Willems
PSAC Member
Chair Saskatchewan Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization