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  • July 29th, 2014

Kathleen Ruff Op-ed: Canada’s continuing asbestos scandal

Canada’s continuing asbestos scandal: science denied, workers exposed to harm

Kathleen Ruff
the Hill Times
28 July 2014

SMITHERS, B.C.—Asbestos is the biggest workplace killer in Canada. A study of workplace death statistics by The Globe and Mail from 2007 to 2012 shows asbestos as the largest cause of workplace deaths throughout Canada. Labour Minister Kellie Leitch is responsible for the workplace health and safety of about 1.5 million workers under federal jurisdiction, such as railways, shipping, pipelines, mining, and government employees.

Canada and all provinces regulate the use of and exposure to asbestos by workers. Recent changes brought in by the federal government make it harder for federal workers to refuse hazardous work and give Leitch authority to dismiss an unsafe work refusal complaint without investigation. Unions are challenging these changes, expressing concern, in particular, about worker exposure to asbestos.

As well as being Labour Minister, Leitch is a medical doctor and a University of Toronto associate professor of surgery. Leitch is a Cabinet minister in a government that supports the use of asbestos. Chrysotile asbestos represents 95 per cent of all asbestos ever used.

Canada and Ontario have adopted the policy of “safe controlled use” of asbestos—allowing its sale, export, and use if it can be safely stored and maintained. Critics of the policy say nothing is truly safe from mishap and the countries to which Canada allows the export of asbestos do not have the regulatory or policing required to safely control its use.

Medical authorities, such as the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Cancer Society, and the World Health Organization, condemn the government’s position as deadly misinformation. They repeatedly state there is no safe exposure level to asbestos and that all use of asbestos must stop in order to prevent continuing asbestos-related deaths, such as Canada and all countries that used asbestos in the past are presently experiencing.

Leitch’s medical peers have directly asked her government to stop supporting asbestos. More than 200 doctors and health professionals challenged Leitch to respect the scientific evidence and put her ethical duty ahead of political ambition. Leitch did not respond. Nor did she respond to letters from asbestos victims, questions from The Medical Post, or questions in the House of Commons.

When interviewed by The Globe and Mail, Leitch said that exposure to asbestos had not come up as a concern since Harper appointed her minister of Labour, evading the fact that, over the past three years, she has received repeated appeals to stop supporting asbestos.

Leitch’s response renders her unfit, in my opinion, to be in charge of the health and safety of Canadian workers.

The Harper government says it provides accurate information on asbestos risk and that it has “consistently acted to protect Canadians from the health risks of asbestos.” Both these statements are utterly untrue. The Harper government is endangering the health of Canadians by disseminating inaccurate information about asbestos risk, by allowing continued import of millions of dollars worth of asbestos-containing products into Canada every year and by opposing health regulations, both in Canada and internationally, that would provide minimal safety measures regarding asbestos.

The Canadian Cancer Society and other organizations wrote to then minister of Health, Leona Aglukkaq in December 2009, noting that exposure to asbestos is the single biggest cause of worker death across Canada and that Aglukkaq had a duty to address this “terrible, continuing and preventable public health tragedy in our country.”

Like Leitch, Aglukkaq refused to take action.

The Canadian government is decades behind other Western governments in protecting its citizens from asbestos. It permits workers to be exposed to 10 times higher levels of asbestos fibres than that permitted by any Western country and 100 times higher than permitted by Germany and the Netherlands.

In Italy, an asbestos industrialist has recently been sentenced to 18 years in prison for causing a public health catastrophe of asbestos deaths. Yet the Harper government promotes the deadly deception that asbestos can be “safely used.”

During the 2011 election, Harper voiced his commitment not to protect Canadians from asbestos, but to protect the interests of the asbestos industry. His government strenuously opposed the 2011 decision of the newly elected Parti Québécois government to end Quebec’s asbestos industry by cancelling a $58-million government loan intended to revive the industry. According to the Harper government, taxpayers should have financed the industry when private enterprise refused to do so.

Thanks to the PQ decision, Canada no longer mines or exports asbestos to developing countries. But Harper continues to put his ideology ahead of scientific evidence and ahead of protecting health. Canadians will pay a terrible price as a consequence.

Kathleen Ruff is senior human rights adviser to the Rideau Institute. Since 2007 she has worked with health experts and asbestos victims in Canada and around the world for a global ban on asbestos.

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