Kathleen Ruff: Canada at heart of global asbestos lobby

Canada at heart of global asbestos lobby
Prevent Cancer Now

By Kathleen Ruff

Canada was in the world spotlight earlier this year, when our government refused to allow chrysotile asbestos to be put on a UN list of hazardous substances. Both in the House of Commons and at the UN, Prime Minister Harper and his ministers refused to answer increasingly exasperated questions as to its reason for blocking the listing. Instead, over and over, the government repeated the following words: “For thirty years, Canada has promoted the safe, controlled use of asbestos at home and overseas.”

As well as evading the question, this statement is untrue. In reality, for decades, Canada has done exactly the opposite.

The UN meeting was simply one more egregious example. The Rotterdam Convention promotes responsible trade in hazardous substances. Placing chrysotile asbestos on its list would require that countries obtain “prior informed consent” before exporting it. Canada refuses to act responsibly when it comes to asbestos and opposed even this minimum safety measure, thus ensuring uncontrolled trade of asbestos.

And Canada’s wrongdoing goes far deeper. Canada, in fact, is at the heart of the global asbestos lobby and has repeatedly intervened to prevent other countries from adopting safety controls or bans on asbestos.

When Thailand and South Korea decided to require warning labels on bags of asbestos, the Canadian government exerted political pressure to prevent this.

When South Africa moved to ban asbestos, Canada threatened it with trade sanctions. When Chile announced that it would ban asbestos, PM Chrétien personally telephoned Chilean President Ricardo Lagos to pressure him to withdraw the ban, causing Chilean trade unionists to hold a demonstration outside the Canadian embassy.

Canada even filed a complaint at the World Trade Organization, arguing that countries should not be allowed to ban asbestos. The WTO dismissed Canada’s case in September 2000 and dismissed it again on appeal – one of the rare times the WTO has ruled against corporate interests.

The key player in Canada’s role as global defender of the asbestos industry is the Chrysotile Institute, formerly the Asbestos Institute. Created in 1986 by the Canadian and Quebec governments and the asbestos industry with the specific aim of marketing asbestos to developing countries, it has received around $50 million, mostly from the two governments, and also from the asbestos industry. According to the Institute, representatives of the Canadian and Quebec governments sit on its board of directors.

The Harper government defers to the Chrysotile Institute as its scientific authority on asbestos. In fact, the Institute is the registered lobby group for the Quebec asbestos industry. The Institute has zero scientific credibility and is condemned by medical experts as “endangering public health by disseminating misleading and untruthful information.”

The Chrysotile Institute has assisted in the creation of similar asbestos lobby organizations in India, Russia, Brazil, Mexico and elsewhere.

Luis Cejudo Alva, the president of the Mexican asbestos lobby organisation, Instituto Mexicano de Fibro Industrias, told the BBC how the Chrysotile Institute has paid him to lobby to defeat efforts of Mexican health professionals to get asbestos banned in Mexico.

Alva told the BBC that, but for the quick intervention of Canada’s Chrysotile Institute, Peru would have followed Chile’s lead in banning asbestos. The Chrysotile Institute has played a similar role in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Indonesia and India, to undermine efforts by health professionals to end the use of asbestos.

Canada became the nexus of the global asbestos lobby when in 1997 the Asbestos International Association (now named the International Chrysotile Association) was incorporated in Quebec under the protection of the Chrysotile Institute. Natural Resources minister, Ralph Goodale, boasted: “The location of this head office underlines Canada’s international leadership and expertise in dealing with chrysotile asbestos issues.”

In spite of its impressive name, the International Chrysotile Association (ICA), is a shadowy organisation. Mysteriously, it has now opened an office in Thetford Mines, the location of Quebec’s only operating asbestos mine. The mine is under bankruptcy protection and about to close down, having exhausted its asbestos deposit, but is seeking to extend the mine into a new deposit.

The ICA office at Thetford Mines refused to provide any information, referring people to long-time asbestos lobbyist in the US, Bob Pigg, who also refused to provide any information.

Quebec’s corporate directory, however, lists Clément Godbout, president of the Chrysotile Institute, as the lead administrator for the ICA. Then follows a list of administrators who are a who’s who of the global asbestos lobby in Indonesia, Bolivia, Peru, UAE, Mexico, Vietnam, Brazil, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, China, India, Senegal.

This global asbestos lobby is determined to prevent developing countries from banning asbestos, as the industrialized world has done. Thanks to the ICA, it has the money and a vehicle to do so.

Right now, in Malaysia, the Department of Occupational Safety & Health has proposed a ban on asbestos. A powerful international public relations company, APCO Worldwide, has intervened to stop this. It wants the Malaysian government to exclude chrysotile asbestos. Chrysotile asbestos represents 100% of the global asbestos trade.

APCO has refused a request to identify its client. It has been learned, however, that the client is the International Chrysotile Association.

APCO cut its teeth working for the tobacco industry. It was hired by Philip Morris in 1993 to set up a front group, the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, to block public health efforts to protect people from second-hand tobacco smoke.

As its expert, APCO hired David Bernstein, whose work has all been funded by the asbestos industry, including a million dollar study commissioned by the Chrysotile Institute. For eighteen years prior, Bernstein carried out research for the tobacco industry.

Canada’s malevolent asbestos legacy to the world continues unabated. When will it stop?

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