Exporting a killer
Black Lake Asbestos Mine
By Jessica Centers, Anniston Star, July 10, 2005
THETFORD MINES, Canada — The word asbestos conjures thoughts of horrors dealt with long ago.
In the past, Asbestos was used in hundreds of products people came in contact with every day. In the past, thousands of manufacturing and mine workers breathed dusty air with no protection. In the past, an industry tried to cover up the dangers and trade lives for profit.
Asbestos – and the business of producing it – is with us still as a health hazard and as a source of bitter debate.
More than 2 million tons comes every year from Russia, Kazakhstan, China, Brazil, Zimbabwe – and Canada.
The United States’ northern neighbor, known to tourists for its clear skies and open spaces, churns out hundreds of thousands of tons of asbestos each year.
It was also a main source of the raw asbestos that ended up in Ragland at the Cement Asbestos Products Company, the Capco plant that Ragland residents thought was their economy’s savior but ended up bringing a plague of cancers and other asbestos-related illnesses.
Those Capco workers, who molded pipe for water systems out of asbestos, have seen friends and family members die over the years, illness being the result of their labor.
Even as they watch a bill to lump asbestos claims together move through Congress, workers in Canada take to the mines to pull asbestos from the earth.
From 1992-2002, more than 97 percent of Canada’s asbestos was exported every year, mostly to Asia. Since 1960, more than 80 percent of all of Canada’s asbestos has been exported.
Opponents of asbestos, and the industries that use it, have carved out battle plans in Canada that could be influenced by what happens in Congress regarding U.S. asbestos litigation companies’ liability to those injured.
Tom Coleman, vice president of operations at Lab Chrysotile, which owns two of Quebec’s three operating mines, says the asbestos milling industry wasn’t always clean, but it is today.
Likewise, he argues that the customers buying his asbestos are big companies making asbestos cement with clean operations.
The past – and safety violations such as those at Ragland’s Capco – don’t apply in the modern era.
When Ban Asbestos president, Laurie Kazan-Allen, hears that asbestos can be used safely under controlled conditions, she pulls out photos of asbestos being handled in India and Pakistan, photos in which men today are working barefoot with no respirators, handling the fibers with their bare hands.
“Ninety percent of the asbestos ever used in the United States was from bloody Canada,” said the president of the group working to get asbestos use outlawed. “When you think about all the people dying and all the litigation, what are these controlled conditions?”
Before any compensation legislation is passed in the United States, she says Congress or the Environmental Protection Agency should first ban asbestos once and for all.
No one can argue that asbestos use can’t be phased out, because Europe has already done it, she says, referring to a European Union plan passed this year to eliminate it.
Kazan-Allen will have her way, at least as far as the ban’s concerned, if Congress passes the current version of the Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act.
It includes a ban on the manufacture, processing and distribution of asbestos-containing products, with a Defense Department exemption for products important to national security.
The Ban Asbestos Secretariat, based in London, England, is supported by world environmental groups and autoworkers’ and teachers’ unions in Canada. It argues that the closely tied asbestos industry and Canadian and Quebec governments exploit poor countries, distorting facts and inflicting disease to save a few hundred jobs in a dying industry.
Last year, the United States imported 3,000 tons of raw asbestos fibers – 66 percent of which came from Canada. From 2000-2003, the United States imported 40,000 tons of asbestos – 98 percent of which came from Canada.
Last year, imported products with a base of asbestos or other mineral fibers were valued at $615 million – a $45 million increase from 2003.
Even as its industry has been devastated by bans and decreasing demand, Canada remains the world’s most powerful pro-asbestos voice, maintaining the argument that its asbestos is safe. For more than 100 years, Canada has been a major player in the asbestos trade – producing more than 60 million tons in the 20th century.
In that time, the United States bought 93 percent of its 29.5 million tons of asbestos imports from Canada.
As the cancers and respiratory diseases caused by asbestos came to light in the 1970s and 1980s, the industry’s biggest consumers in the United States and western Europe used less and less, as did Canada.
Today, Canada’s once-thriving industry has been reduced to three mines – one whose owner is in bankruptcy and two that operate only half the year.
The Black Lake mine – which in May reopened for its six-month stint – supplied the majority of asbestos used by the former Cement Asbestos Products Company plant in Ragland that has left a mark of asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma in Northeast Alabama.
Those Quebecois who live in the mining region among massive open pits and mountains of asbestos tailings have some of the highest mesothelioma rates in the world, but interviews with townsfolk reveal many don’t believe there’s any danger. To them, the mines have been a vital source of jobs and national pride.
The Asbestos Institute, which now calls itself the Chrysotile Institute, was created in 1984 by industry, unions and the governments of Canada and Quebec to promote the “safe and responsible use of chrysotile in Canada and throughout the world.”
Its money and influence have backed successful campaigns to throw out the EPA’s 1989 asbestos ban and to prevent the United Nations from requiring chrysotile asbestos exporters from having to inform importing countries that the fibers are dangerous.
Chrysotile is the only asbestos being produced today. It comes from the serpentine group, whereas the other fiber types, tremolite, amosite, crocidolite, actinolite and anthophyllite, are part of the amphiboles group.
Recent studies have shown the biopersistence of chrysotile is shorter than other forms, meaning it does not stay in the body as long.
Anti-asbestos activists say the biopersistence studies prove nothing, that regardless of how long the fiber remains in the body, the damage is done and a disease may present itself decades later.
Chrysotile Institute Chairman Clement Godbout responds that the activists’ position is not shared by serious scientists. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the World Health Organization, recognizes the importance of biopersistence, he noted in an interview from his Montreal office.
In September 2003, the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat hosted a three-day conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada. It was the first event of its kind in Canada, attended by international and Canadian scientists, academics, medical personnel, epidemiologists, trade unionists, public health experts and asbestos victims.
Attendees attacked the Canadian and Quebec governments for lending financial and political support to the industry – allowing thousands of Canadian asbestos victims to go unacknowledged while mountains of asbestos tailings piled up around the mining region.
Political scientist Kyla Sentes – who would become the head of Ban Asbestos Canada – asked workers in Canada and abroad to “ask the Canadian government why it is supporting a dying industry, why does it continue to deny the costly lessons of the past and why does it continue to show so little regard for the workers who face dying along with the industry.”
About 250 mineworkers and Thetford residents protested outside the conference in support of their product and jobs in what the Asbestos Institute called a “spontaneous gathering.”
Allegations that the protest had been orchestrated illustrate the bitterness surrounding the asbestos debate. The factions supporting asbestos production say opponents of the fiber are, in part, pawns of companies that produce substitute products.
“They say the anti-asbestos movement is ignorant, corrupt and hysterical,” said Kazan-Allen from her London home. “What I would say is there are a lot of very independent scientists and academics who feel that asbestos should be banned.”
Epidemiologist Dr. Louise De Guire of the National Institute of Public Health in Quebec said women in Quebec are twice as likely to contract mesothelioma as Canadian women generally, and the incidence of mesothelioma among Quebec men is more than four times higher than Quebec women.
A comparison between the number of mesothelioma diagnoses and number compensated by the Workers’ Compensation Board indicated a vast number of patients go uncompensated.
The compensation board cases represent only 0.3 percent of Quebec Tumor Registry cases; the number of asbestosis hospitalizations was 3.6 times greater than the number of claims.
“The reason this data was so important is because there is no Canadian cancer registry,” Kazan-Allen said. “They don’t want to know this stuff because the longer they don’t know the longer it doesn’t exist.”
Godbout of the Chrysotile Institute said the data on mesothelioma rates is misleading because it documents cases from people who were exposed in the 50s, 60s and 70s when amphibole asbestos was used in Canada and throughout the world.
Unfortunately, he said, that is the result of past amphibole use but it’s not the case today and shouldn’t be presented as such.
In a newsletter following the conference, the Asbestos Institute maintained that workers who developed diseases were exposed before controls were implemented in the early 1970s.
The conference concluded by passing a resolution calling on the Canadian government to renounce its backing of the industry, withdraw financial and political support for the Asbestos Institute, join the global ban on the use and importation of asbestos, and assume responsibility for harm done to workers, families and communities.
Two months later, the Canadian government renewed its support for the Asbestos Institute with a three-year $775,000 contribution funded by Natural Resources Canada and Canada Economic Development.
“Chrysotile asbestos is important to the economic development of the Chaudiere-Appalaches and Eastern Townships regions of Quebec, since it has numerous applications here and around the world,” said Claude Drouin, secretary of state for CED in Quebec, in a prepared statement. “We are proud to be assisting organizations such as the Asbestos Institute that works to ensure that communities can have a safe and prosperous future.”
Godbout said workers today have to face more than 1,200 different products that can cause cancer or are dangerous in some way.
“By banning one product we don’t settle too many things,” he said.
Godbout thinks the more responsible approach is to push for strict control and legislation wherever workers come in contact with dangerous substances. He says no other industry has done as much as the Canadian chrysotile industry pertaining to health and safety in the developing world. The Canadian chrysotile industry only sells its fibers to companies where they know it is being handled properly, he said.
“We have a product with a potential risk so we attach to that product programs, studies, research, and information and help in order to say, ‘Listen, it has to be done that way,’” Godbout said.
He criticizes European countries for trying to sell to developing countries products that are more costly than chrysotile, are less durable, and have never been proven to be less harmful.
The institute says research on replacement products is lacking and wants to see more research done.
“I will never say that using chrysotile is good and you will be taking it in and there is no problem,” Godbout said. “It has to be handled with care.”