A group of international health organizations is calling on Canada and other asbestos-producing countries to stop mining and exporting the hazardous material commonly used in construction and manufacturing.
The position statement was issued in late July by the Joint Policy Committee of the Societies of Epidemiology, a consortium of international epidemiology organizations including the Canadian Society for Epidemiology and Biostatistics and the American College of Epidemiology. More than 180 individuals and public health groups from 21 countries have endorsed the statement.
After a broad review of available epidemiology evidence, the Joint Policy Committee concluded that all types of asbestos are dangerous and capable of causing cancer of the lung, ovaries and larynx as well as asbestosis, mesothelioma and other lung diseases. Asbestos includes several types of fibrous minerals used in building materials such as roofing, flooring and insulation.
The statement should put to rest any uncertainty about the health hazards of asbestos and dispel notions that some types are not dangerous, said Colin Soskolne, professor of epidemiology at the University of Alberta and a member of the Joint Policy Committee.
“We are confident that it will set aside any ability of vested interests to continue to lie about the potential safe uses of this product,” said Dr. Soskolne, who played a key role in formulating the statement. “There is no way of using it safely.”
More than 50 countries have banned the use of asbestos while other industrialized nations, including Canada, have virtually stopped using it domestically. But several countries continue to mine and export the product. Global asbestos use totals about two million tonnes a year. Canada, Russia, Kazakhstan, Brazil and China account for more than 90 percent of total production.
The debate over the safety of some types of asbestos fibre has been contentious in Canada, particularly in Quebec, which has a long history of mining asbestos. The controversy has at times ensnared university researchers. Production is currently suspended in the province but plans are under way to restart the Jeffrey mine in Asbestos, Quebec. The Quebec government announced in June that it would provide $58 million in loans to support the project.
Dr. Soskolne accused Canada of having a double standard. While the Canadian government has spent millions of dollars to remove asbestos from the Parliament buildings and the Prime Minister’s residence, it refuses to ban the production and export of the product largely to developing countries with lax health regulations.
The use of asbestos is increasing in China, India and other developing nations. “If unstopped, this continued and increasing use of asbestos will lead to a public health disaster of asbestos-related illness and premature death for decades to come in those countries, repeating the epidemic we are witnessing today in industrialized countries that used asbestos in the past,” the statement warned.
The World Health Organization estimates that more than 107,000 people a year die from asbestos-related diseases. The study notes that from 1999 to 2008, 70 percent of deaths from occupational diseases in Quebec were caused by asbestos, and that asbestos remains the biggest single cause of occupational disease across Canada.
The Joint Policy Committee’s statement singles out the role of the Canadian asbestos industry and some university researchers in defending the continued use of the product. It notes that the Canadian asbestos industry is largely responsible for promoting the idea that chrysotile asbestos, the type mined in Quebec, is safe if handled properly. An independent review of studies carried out by McGill University researchers promoting this view and funded by the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association revealed “unsound selection, sampling and analytical techniques,” the report said.
“Canada’s role in fomenting doubt about the different roles of the different types of asbestos has been profound in terms of causing harm to advancing science and the pursuit of truth,” said Dr. Soskolne, who is past president of the Canadian Society for Epidemiology and Biostatistics. “This is simply a fabrication.” The researchers, he added, “were basically in the pocket of the industry.”
The statement accuses asbestos manufacturers of adopting the same tactics as the tobacco industry to promote its product, including manipulating research. “The asbestos industry has also used the tactic of legal intimidation against scientists and academics to impede their writing about the threat to health posed by the use of chrysotile asbestos,” the statement said. This tactic is being used in India, Brazil and Thailand, it added.