From the Lancet, the Journal of the British Medical Society, from the Lancet website, December 9, 2010
Asbestos is a lethal and naturally occurring group of minerals that has brought death and misery to people worldwide. Due to its good tensile strength and resistance to damage, asbestos became extremely popular throughout the early 20th century, and, in many less wealthy nations, remainsso today, where it has several uses including strengthening cement and prolonging the life of road surfaces.Once the link between asbestos and lung disease and cancer was proven beyond doubt, high-income countries began phasing out its use and removing it from buildings. Despite this, WHO estimates that about125 million people worldwide remain exposed to asbestos in the workplace.
More than 107 000 people die each year from asbestos-related lung cancer,mesothelioma (a specific form of lung cancer), and asbestosis resulting from occupational exposures. One in every three deaths from occupational cancer is estimated to be caused by asbestos.
Mesthothelioma is termed a timebomb because symptoms often occur several decades after exposure.
Asbestos fibres penetrate the lungs, and can lead to cancer. Cases of mesothelioma continue to rise in
many high-income countries, because most exposure occurred during the 1960s and 1970s before the
dangers were evident. In the UK, the mesothelioma death toll has increased
from 895 in 1990 to 2249 in 2008. It could be a decade before cases begin to fall again.
In Canada, deaths rose from 153 in 1984 to 386 in 2007, though the Canadian Medical Association
Journal notes that “the number of cases is likely underestimated owing to diagnostic, coding and registration challenges specific to mesothelioma”. Canada is actively removing asbestos from its buildings, and has a de-facto ban on using the substance in any form in all but exceptional circumstances.
But unlike other rich nations, Canada has been a major exporter of chrysotile, or white asbestos. It was the world’s fourth biggest exporter (behind Russia, Kazakhstan, and Brazil) shipping about 150 000 tonnes per year to developing countries such as India, Indonesia, and the Philippines, where little or no protection exists for workers or exposed populations. Asbestos-laden products such as piping, roofing, and cement are widely dispersed in developing countries and are cut, sawn, and hammered, with many workers not knowing that they contain asbestos or even what asbestos is. Canada has also vetoed attempts by WHO and the international community to include chrysotile in the Rotterdam Convention—a UN-sponsored list of controlled substances—which officially alerts importing nations to risks associated with that substance.
However, with readily accessible deposits of chrysotile in Quebec dwindling, Canada’s exports seemed to be at an end. That was until an Indian consortium, led by Montreal-based financier Baljit Chadha, put in a bid to convert the recently closed Jeffrey Mine from an open pit to an underground operation.
This would see production and exports run for another 25 years, boosting yearly output to a maximum of 260 000 tonnes—around 10% of global production. It would also secure 500 jobs for miners and others.
The Quebec Government, led by Jean Charest, is considering providing a $US57 million loan guarantee to the project. A spokesperson for the Quebec Government confirmed the matter was under consideration, and that the government required an economic partner to go ahead. She added that there must be a guarantee both of profitability and that the operators will “follow the rules of safe use of chrysotile effective in Canada”.