by Buzz Hargrove
On July 13th, the Canadian newspaper Globe & Mail, printed an editorial alleging that chrysotile asbestos, mined in Canada, is less hazardous than other forms of asbestos. The following is a copy of the July 18th letter to the Editor of the Globe & Mail from Canadian Automobile Workers Union President, Buzz Hargrove. We reprint this letter as an admirable example of genuine union leadership in the international struggle to protect the environmental health of workers.
Propaganda should never masquerade as science. Yet that is precisely what the Globe and Mail has done in its editorial of July 13th, Why ban asbestos? The Globe and Mail has recklessly promoted the use of asbestos in supporting Prime Minister Chretien's advocacy of its use in third world countries.
Nearly all developed countries, including Canada, have almost entirely abandoned the use of all types of asbestos. Many European countries, including the United Kingdom and France have completely banned the use of every type of asbestos. They have done so for a reason. Asbestos kills and maims workers who work with it, and members of the public who are also often exposed.
The Globe editorial minimizes and even denies the deadly effects of asbestos. I strongly disagree with your editorial for a number of reasons.
First, asbestos causes a number of cancers which are deadly; they include lung cancer, mesothelioma and various gastrointestinal cancers. It also causes the lung disease asbestosis as well as chronic obstructive lung disease, both debilitating and potentially deadly.
Second, your editorial alleges: Studies have shown that even workers who were exposed to chrysotile asbestos at high levels over long periods showed no abnormal incidence of asbestos-related cancers. This is simply not true.
Though this was initially thought to be the case by some, that is no longer the case. The preponderance of scientific evidence to date demonstrates that chrysotile too causes cancer, including lung cancer and mesothelioma. This comes from the American Journal of Industrial Medicine in its call for an international ban on asbestos [American Journal of Industrial Medicine 36:227-229 (1999)].
Third, the editorial does not address the extensive loss of life and sickness caused in Canada by asbestos. We need only look at a recent example, the Holmes Foundry, Insulation and Caposite plants in Sarnia, Ontario where workers were exposed to high levels of asbestos. Over 130 claims have been accepted by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board for workplace exposures at the Holmes plants for diseases such as mesothelioma, lung cancer, gastrointestinal cancers and chronic obstructive lung disease, all of which have been associated with asbestos. Dozens of those workers have already died. More claims are being filed. We know this situation intimately because it is our members who worked there and suffered the tragic consequences.
As well there are cases of workers family members who have contracted asbestos-related cancers from asbestos carried home on the workers clothing (hardly large quantities of this substance), the most disturbing example being a 14 year old boy whose father worked at the Holmes plant. This boy died from mesothelioma, which is always caused by asbestos.
Finally, your editorial implies that there is a safe way to work with asbestos. The reality is, there is no known safe level for exposure to asbestos, chrysotile or otherwise. It is also true, once asbestos is used in products (such as the building materials referred to in your editorial), particularly if they are widely used, there is no practical way to maintain an inventory of the products, not to mention strict control over how they are used. Workers and home owners will drill, cut and otherwise disturb these products in the daily course of maintenance. Once that happens fibers are released and yes, those fibers are deadly.
Needless to say, I recognize the significance of the jobs that are at stake in the Quebec asbestos mines. But this cannot be the basis to justify promoting a deadly product that will result in loss of life in countries around the world.
The Prime Minister can show genuine concern for workers in the asbestos industry by establishing a federally financed just transition strategy so these workers will be looked after through retraining, relocation and pensions. If all of the money invested by the federal and provincial government in propping up the asbestos industry had instead been given to the Quebec asbestos workers, they could all have been pensioned off twenty years ago when markets in Canada declined significantly as a result of Canadian deaths and the phase out of asbestos use in Canada.
You say that Prime Minister Chretien has every right to call Mr. Lagos and make Canada's case for asbestos. He may have every right to call Mr. Lagos, but he has no authority, moral or otherwise, to promote the use of a deadly material in the name of Canada. And Chileans have every right to protest his attempt to do so.
Asbestos is particularly deadly in underdeveloped countries where there are not the same protections for workers who use asbestos in factories as there are here. In countries such as India or throughout Latin America there is, more often than not, no ventilation, no respirators and no other protective equipment. These workers have died and are continuing to die in the tens of thousands.
Surely, we as Canadians have a responsibility to stop exporting this deadly substance to those who cannot protect themselves.
Basil Buzz Hargrove