Canada’s Breathtaking Hypocrisy on Asbestos

Canada is removing asbestos from politicians’ offices while exporting it by the ton.

Canada’s House of Parliament

The Canadian Parliament Buildings were completed in 1927, after one of the original 19th-century structures was destroyed by fire. According to a Government of Canada website, they offer “a fascinating blend of stateliness and vibrancy.” If you drop by for a visit, you’ll see beautiful vaulted ceilings and walls decorated with “saucy faces [that] grin at passers-by.” The buildings, which sit high on the banks of the Ottawa River, are the home of Canada’s federal government and a destination for tourists.

They’re also packed with asbestos, the material that has for years been indisputably linked to various cancers and other diseases. So it’s no surprise that a massive renovation that will include the removal of the deadly substance from the Parliament Buildings is under way. Three major buildings on Parliament Hill—West Block, East Block, and Centre Block—will have asbestos removed. An email from government spokesman Bill Badets gives a sense of the project’s massive scope. Fifty members of parliament vacated the West Block building so that the renovation could begin. The upcoming rehabilitation of the East Block and Centre Block buildings will require 154 MPs to relocate their offices, according to Badets.

Asked about the price of all this work, Badets wrote, “It is premature to speculate on costs,” but he said that the known cost to date for the West Block rehabilitation is roughly $863 million Canadian. (The U.S. and Canadian dollars are currently at near-parity.)

A document posted online breaks down some of the necessary steps in the West Block renovation for any contractors who might be interested in tackling the job. The tender says the project will require the removal of drywall partitions, carpeting, and ceiling tiles; it will also require the installation of “temporary mechanical and electrical services” to keep the building running during construction. And all inaccessible asbestos will have to be “encapsulated” to eliminate health risks to the building’s tenants.

This massive project makes recent events surprising, particularly Canada’s opposition, at an international conference in Switzerland, to adding chrysotile asbestos to the Rotterdam Convention, a U.N. treaty on hazardous substances. If asbestos were added to the Rotterdam Convention, Canada and other exporters would be required to warn all importing countries of the dangers of asbestos and inform purchasers how to mitigate risks.

The listing would not have required Canada to ban asbestos exports. It would have forced Canada and other countries to acknowledge what asbestos is: a material that has, repeatedly and consistently, been linked to various forms of cancer and other diseases. Canada now appears to be either oblivious to the health effects of asbestos or to be willfully ignoring them in the pursuit of export income.

Even India, which imports more Canadian asbestos than any other country, was in favor of adding the material to the convention. But Canada was resolute, and, because the convention operates by consensus, asbestos stayed off the list.

Asbestos is a group of minerals that became popular in the 19th and 20th centuries because they are strong, fire-resistant, and, most important, cheap. At one point, it was used in everything from children’s toys to construction. Then miners started hacking up blood. And after studies piled up linking the set of minerals to various cancers, more than 50 countries banned the use or importation of asbestos.

Dr. Richard Lemen, a former U.S. assistant surgeon general who has studied asbestos since the 1970s, says the debate on the substance’s health effects is over. He told me the scientific consensus is that all forms of asbestos are harmful and carcinogenic, and he ran through a laundry list of organizations that have concluded as much, including the World Health Organization and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

But Quebec, the home of Canada’s only operational asbestos mines and the few hundred workers who man them, remains years behind the times. The province is ground zero for exports of chrysotile, the only form of asbestos still mined in Canada. In 2009, Canada exported 153,000 metric tons of chrysotile. Most of it went to India, with the rest heading to Indonesia, Thailand, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates, according to the Center for Public Integrity. The Globe and Mail, Canada’s leading newspaper, says the industry is worth about $90 million to Canada each year.

Chrysotile accounts for 95 percent of the asbestos used worldwide, which seems to suggest that it’s playing a role in the 107,000 deaths per year that the World Health Organization attributes to asbestos-related diseases from occupational exposure. Canada uses little asbestos domestically, though the CPI reports that it’s the world’s fourth-largest exporter.

Appearing on the CBC recently, Canada’s minister of industry, Christian Paradis, insisted that chrysotile is an acceptable building material if it’s handled properly. A statement issued by his office reads, “All scientific reviews clearly confirm that chrysotile fibres can be used safely under controlled conditions.” I wish Canada’s desire to shine on the international stage would prompt the government to search for a better explanation. Arguing that asbestos is simply part of our national identity, like curling, or choking in the Stanley Cup finals, would be more plausible.

This “proper handling” argument is not so much false as it’s based on a premise that will never be true. In 2005, Quebec’s public-health agency concluded, “In Quebec … the safe use of asbestos is difficult, perhaps impossible, in industries such as construction, renovation, and processing.” And as the Globe and Mail pointed out, Paradis must be reading different scientific literature than a senior Health Canada official who in 2006 recommended that chrysotile be listed under the Rotterdam Convention.

The head of India’s occupational and environmental department said in 2007 that at least 100,000 Indian factory workers and millions of construction workers across the country were inhaling chrysotile fibers every day. He said most Indian workers didn’t wear protective masks. Lemen told me the idea of safe asbestos use is “a myth” promoted by the Canadian government. And as the Lancet argued last year, no amount of safe handling can prevent an earthquake, like the one in India in 2001, which caused buildings to crumble.

Minister Paradis has also argued that the asbestos Canada sends abroad is unlike the stuff that was sprayed indiscriminately into the ceilings and walls of Parliament Hill. If that stuff in Ottawa is disturbed, tiny particles become airborne and can be inhaled. But if the material is handled carefully, his argument goes, risks are minimized.

But Lemen says the amount of asbestos one could inhale on Parliament Hill is “probably a lot less than somebody’s going to breathe in India,” where large clouds of dust disperse when a bag of the material is opened. “I think there’s really no comparison,” Lemen added.

Still, Canadian members of parliament don’t deserve to be exposed to a known carcinogen. And according to documents posted online, neither do other Canadians. An Alberta public school requested asbestos abatement at a facility in Edmonton. After an explosion at an Ottawa heating and cooling facility, a tender was posted for emergency repairs, including “extensive asbestos abatement.” And near the bottom of a tender for a water-treatment facility in my hometown of Toronto, there’s this: “All materials used in the manufacturing of the equipment shall be asbestos and tar free; no exceptions will be permitted. … The successful bidder shall therefore use alternative products.” Lower down in the document, below the heading “Class A1 Carcinogens,” chrysotile asbestos appears.

All this leads me to wonder: What makes something safe for Indian workers but poisonous to Canadian politicians?