In recent weeks, the cabinet members of the Government of Quebec have announced that they are considering approving a $58 million loan guarantee to help the province's chrysotile asbestos industry. The province will kick in the funds to help the underground expansion at the 131 year old Jeffrey mine, the world's largest asbestos mine, in the town of Asbestos. At one time, the Jeffrey mine produced one-third of the world's annual supply of asbestos. The mine expansion would create an additional 400 jobs in the town of 6800 residents. The mayor of the town, Hugues Grimard, claims that expanding the mine, which is now under bankruptcy protection, would create more than $1 billion in economic spin-offs for the area over the next 25 years.
Here is a Google Earth screen capture showing the town of Asbestos and the open pit mine which encroaches on the west side of the town. For scale, the open pit mine is approximately 2 kilometres in diameter and 330 metres deep.
In response to this support of the asbestos industry by the Quebec government, the independent, Italy-based Collegium Ramazzini, an "...international academic society that examines critical issues in occupational and environmental medicine..." that is "...dedicated to the prevention of disease and the promotion of health..." issued a letter condemning the move. The Collegium, which consists of 180 clinicians and scientists from around the world, accused Quebec Health Minister, Dr. Yves Bolduc M.D., of ignoring his duties as a medical doctor by "...participating in a concerted action that puts in danger the health of an individual or a population..." which is against Quebec's Medical Code of Ethics. In the past, the Collegium has completed a study and issued this report calling for a complete ban on the mining and manufacture of asbestos throughout the world since it is, unquestionably, a carcinogen. It is interesting to note that the Canadian Medical Association is also calling for a ban on the mining and export of chrysotile asbestos.
It appears that exposure to asbestos at even very low levels can result in increased risk of cancer. Exposure of even very short durations (a matter of one or two months) can greatly increase the health risk. Exposure to asbestos fibres occurs through inhalation of contaminated air, the highest levels of exposure being in the areas around asbestos packaging and mixing equipment. It also occurs when buildings containing asbestos are demolished or renovated. Exposure to the fibres can result in lung cancers, mesothelioma (cancer of the lining of the lungs), asbestosis (scarring of the lungs) and may also result in cancer of the larynx, ovaries and esophagus.
Canada is now one of two developed nations in the world that produce and export asbestos. In 2008, Canada exported 175,000 tonnes of asbestos to 80 nations around the world including developing nations primarily in Asia including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, China and the Philippines where it is commonly used in mixed asbestos - cement building materials because it is inexpensive. In fact, use of asbestos is still growing in Thailand which has the worlds largest per capita consumption of 1.9 kilograms of asbestos annually. As well, once the Jeffrey Mine is operational, it will increase the amount of asbestos produced in Canada significantly; in 2001, Canada produced 277,000 tons of asbestos.
Here is a chart showing the amount of asbestos mined by various countries:
The World Health Organization estimates that about 125 million people around the world are exposed to asbestos at their place of work resulting in at least 90,000 deaths every year. They also state that about half of the world's deaths from occupational cancers are related to asbestos exposure. Even though many countries abandoned the use of asbestos in the early 1990s, asbestos-related diseases are still on the increase because of the long period of time between exposure and symptomatic illness which can often be measured in decades. Over 40 nations in the world have banned the use of asbestos in all forms including all EU countries. As well, many other countries are phasing out the use of asbestos including Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. It is important to note the trend in asbestos consumption; the poor nations of the world, particularly among the Asian nations, are increasing their consumption while the more affluent nations are markedly decreasing their consumption of asbestos.
To wash their hands of health issues created in these less safety conscious developing nations by the export of its asbestos, Quebec wants the purchasing nations to agree to safety measures that would limit dangerous exposure to the product. I have no idea how they will enforce these safety measures once the product leaves Canada and don't suspect that the industry has any idea either.
While the $58 million investment in the Jeffrey Mine will create 400 jobs and an estimated billion dollars in economic spin-offs for Quebec, it will be done at the cost of the health of uninformed consumers in developing nations. Surely both Quebec and Canada know better.