Imagine being winded by a half block walk, fighting to catch your breath as your lungs slowly harden, gasping for air against a disease that will eventually suffocate you. Pretty scary right? Welcome to the world of asbestosis, a disease caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibres, and a disease for which there is no cure. Asbestos, when it was discovered in 1879, was called “white gold,” today, it is banned in 50 countries. The World Health Organization has identified asbestos as being amongst the most dangerous occupational carcinogens in the world, causing diseases such as lung cancer and mesothelioma, in addition to asbestosis. Knowing this, it comes as little surprise that Canada has effectively banned asbestos for domestic use. What is surprising, and perhaps shocking, is that next to Russia, Canada is the second largest exporter of asbestos to Asia. What do you do when you have lots of a carcinogenic substance that nobody is willing to use at home? Export it, of course; to countries like India where the health standards are much lower. This is exactly what Canada is doing, and so the question becomes whether Canadian companies should be allowed to mine, market and sell asbestos.
Asbestos is, without a doubt, a very useful substance. Asbestos was once a global commodity that was known as a “magic mineral” because of its insulating and fire resistant properties. The usefulness of the substance is seen by the fact that at one point, asbestos was everywhere, you could find it in houses, cars, factories, and thousands of both household and industrial products. It was used in all kinds of insulation and was in practically everything ranging from brake pads, paint, cement, sidings, shingles, pipes, ceiling and floor tiles, and clutch facings, all the way to crayons. In fact, asbestos was considered so valuable at one point that the American military planned to defend the Quebec mines if Germany ever gained control of Canada. Asbestos cement was also used to make Winston Churchill’s bunker during World War II. It is evident that asbestos is an extremely useful and versatile substance, both durable and relatively cheap, so why should we be banning it?
This question can be answered by three words: asbestos, causes, cancer. The banning of asbestos exports was never a question of its usefulness, the problem is the massive market failure associated with it. Namely, negative externalities. For all its benefits, the use of asbestos is also coupled with extreme negative impacts. As mentioned before, exposure to asbestos, a carcinogen, leads to the diseases asbestosis and mesothelioma. People often express concern for the people working in asbestos factories, but simply improving conditions at asbestos factories only solves part of the problem, because the negative externalities don’t end there. The primary exposure is not to factory workers; it is to people such as construction workers, masons, plumbers and electricians, whose job it is to do things like cutting through asbestos pipes, sheets and tiles all day. Not only that, people working in buildings made with asbestos are exposed to it each and every day. And if that isn’t bad enough, the families of those working in asbestos factories are also exposed to the fibres that are brought back to the house. A girl named Cavanagh Matmor’s grandmother died of exposure from fibres her husband, who worked in a Toronto factory with asbestos, brought into the house with him. The World Health Organization reports that each year more than 100, 000 people die from diseases due to asbestos exposure, and more will continue to die, as 125 million people are exposed to asbestos at work each and every day. Those are some pretty scary numbers, and the failure of asbestos is summed up pretty well by Dr. Amir Attaran’s description of asbestos use in his country, “It’s a scientific failure, a clinical failure, and a social and moral failure of India. It is a failure of culture and science.”
The negative externalities associated with asbestos exposure are obvious, so why does demand for it continue to exist in developing nations such as India and Indonesia? After all, you can’t really say it’s our fault if they know what they’re getting into but keep asking for more right? Well, first off, the negative externalities may not be so obvious to the workers in these nations because their employers hide that information from them, and they do not have the education to read the English warnings on the bags they carry. There are two major reasons why the demand for asbestos in these countries continues to exist, and even grow: lax limitations on control and use, and the fact that the people are poor. With limited regulations, there is nothing to stop companies from using asbestos, so they don’t stop. Banning asbestos in Canada and selling it abroad is basically saying “we don’t care who dies from asbestos, just as long as it isn’t us.” In Canada, buyer’s preferences have shifted completely away from asbestos now that people are aware of the health risks, so much so that the government has banned its use, but that hasn’t prevented Canada from shipping it out to other nations with poorer regulations. In these places, a worker might have cloth tied over their face as safety equipment at best. Durai Swami, who worked with asbestos for 24 years has the right idea when he says, “In Canada, you have all these safety measures. In my country, they’ve left us to carry it and die.” Yet they continue to work because the economic incentive of even a meagre wage outweighs the potential health risk. To them, asbestosis or no asbestosis, they need a job and the industry employs 100, 000 people directly, and a further 300, 000 indirectly. These countries also have many people, and many poor people. India, with a growing population of 1.2 billion, presents a huge number of buyers creating demand for the product. It isn’t difficult to understand why people in these nations continue to use asbestos, considering that asbestos cement sheets are both durable and cheap, costing half as much as roofing made of galvanized steel or tin, and lasting twice as long. An economic incentive that great becomes difficult to pass up, which explains why Asia’s share of the world’s asbestos use went from 14% during 1920 to 1970, all the way up to 33 percent from 1971 to 2000, and currently sits at 64%. However, there will be a huge price to pay, as Dr. Arthur Frank, Chairman of Environmantal and Occupational Health at Drexel University explains, “What we can expect is very predictable – an absolute catastrophe of death and disease.”
It is understandable why people in India continue to use asbestos, what is less understandable is how Canada can continue to justify these exports to its population. We know what is happening with our asbestos once it gets to other nations, we know the damaging impacts it has, the statistics are right in front of us. So if we think and know it is wrong, why doesn’t the population force the government to ban exports? One possibility is that the Canadian asbestos is mined in Quebec. Because of the cultural and language differences, Quebec’s affairs are somewhat separated from the rest of Canada, as if they were practically two separate nations. Without the rest of Canada as involved, there isn’t as much pressure on the federal government, and so the key to Canada’s asbestos lies with the Quebec government. This is because without the $58 million loan guarantee from the Premier, the industry will have to cease operations. However, whether from Quebec or the rest of Canada, Canadian asbestos is all the same to workers in India and Indonesia, and the damage is done to Canada’s reputation as a whole. The only way politicians such as Stephen Harper and Jean Charest will make changes to Canada’s position on asbestos is if there is sufficient pressure from the public, and so even if the population is opposed to it, perhaps the isolation of the industry in Quebec is preventing that pressure from building.
It’s plausible that the isolation of asbestos mining to Quebec prevents public pressure in Canada from building up to a great extent, but that doesn’t explain how Canada as a nation can justify exporting a carcinogen on a global scale. After all, the conservative government just decided to block an international agreement that would include asbestos on the Rotterdam Convention watch list of hazardous materials. Bernard Coulombe, owner of the Jeffrey asbestos mine, said, “We don’t want to be on a banned list, that would bring shame for us.” Obviously exporting a carcinogen that you won’t touch yourself to developing nations, simply because they are poorer and have lower regulatory standards, isn’t shameful at all. The Canadian Cancer Society said it was an “unethical decision” and that it was left “shocked and embarrassed.” Canada’s decision certainly didn’t help its international reputation as a fair dealer, but that doesn’t mean it was baseless either. Believe it or not, Canada does have some legitimate justification for its asbestos. Canadian chrysotile is supposed to be of higher quality and safer than other forms of asbestos, and is valued as the industry standard. “Chrysotile” is the recent rebranding of Canada’s white asbestos, which seems suspiciously like slapping a new name on the same product so as to move away from the damaged name of asbestos. In any case, John Nicodemus, an executive director of the Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association of India says, “Canadian fibres are amongst the best in the world – that is why most companies prefer Canadian fibres first.” Conservatives and the mining industry contend that chrysotile is less harmful than the much more toxic blue and brown asbestos other countries produce, and that it is safe if handled properly. And they are correct, Canada’s asbestos is the best out there, so if they’re going to use asbestos anyways, may as well give them the best. However, the key words to note here are “less harmful” and “if handled properly.” “Less harmful” just means that Canada is the best, the best of the worst that is, which doesn’t make it good, as WHO has stated that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos. Moreover, “if handled properly” is a very big if, considering activists in India argue that there is no such thing as safe use in the country because occupational safety isn’t practised, regulations aren’t enforced, workers’ health isn’t monitored, and there is severe poverty.
The Conservatives try to defend their chrysotile, and the difference in quality is a legitimate argument, to some extent, but no matter what quality asbestos, it certainly isn’t helping Canada’s international reputation. So what reason does the government have to swallow the damage to its status? The answer seems to be entirely political. Taking on asbestos exportation is difficult for the Conservatives, or any political party, because of the industry opposition. The Conservatives are very firm in their support of the asbestos industry, and it may just be a play on their part to win as many seats as they can. In the past election, the NDP swept up in Quebec with 59 Mp’s elected, leaving the Conservatives hanging on to just five ridings south of the St. Lawrence, which is mostly made up of the asbestos region. For the government, the decision on asbestos became a balancing act of social incentives. Ban asbestos and please health organizations, along with maintaining Canada’s international reputation, or support asbestos, and keep the support of its regional base in Quebec. Ultimately, it seems that on the social incentive scale the side that gets Harper votes is the one that wins out. Not an admirable decision by any means, but it is an understandable one; after all, the goal of any government is to get votes and stay in power, especially holding on to its established ridings. However, Harper certainly knows what’s wrong with asbestos, planning to begin a $1 billion renovation project to clean asbestos from the parliamentary buildings, so perhaps it is time for our government to suck it up and ban asbestos for good, because it’s the right thing to do.
The right thing to do, that’s what this issue ultimately boils down to. Developing countries have the economic incentive to go on using the cheap and durable asbestos, and profits for Canada provide the incentive to go on selling it. The Conservatives have the opposing social incentives of global reputation and its Quebec region support. However, it is not the economic incentives that are most important, nor are the social incentives; what must be considered first and foremost is the moral incentive. Is allowing Canadian companies to mine, market, and sell asbestos, not domestically, it’s banned here, but export it, the right thing to do? As Frank, a public health expert at Drexel University says, “Canada is the world’s biggest hypocrite when it comes to asbestos. It is taking it out of Parliament buildings but willing to sell it overseas.” The government should know that asbestos is a carcinogen. The government should know that asbestos-related diseases kill an estimated 107, 000 people worldwide each year. And so, the government should know what it must do. An Indian named Ragunath Manwar asks Canada, “Doesn’t you government feel a moral responsibility that what they are doing is killing us?” It certainly should, and it is about time for Canada to stop exporting death.