Canadian volunteers take on asbestos trade
Asbestos Victims Association of Quebec
By Jessica Centers, Anniston Star, July 10, 2005
MONTREAL — The Asbestos Victims Association of Quebec is headquartered on a residential street downtown. The association’s rent-free office shares a building with Christian groups and other non-profit organizations. On most days, the lights are off and the door stays locked.
That’s because the association that represents Quebec’s asbestos victims and educates the public about an environmental health crisis has two members – volunteers with separate, full-time jobs.
Their third founding member, Roch Lanthier, the “communicateur” who manned the office, died unexpectedly last year.
Now Micheline Marier, an economist by profession, and Richard Rousseau, a native of the mining region of Quebec, are up against the government-funded asbestos lobby.
Marier says her side, though overmatched, has the advantage of truth.
Marier’s desire to know the truth was how she stumbled into her role as an anti-asbestos activist.
In 1996, Marier – a Quebec native – was living in France and decided to return home. At the time, France’s asbestos ban was a prominent news story. She read about thousands of workers sick or dying from occupational asbestos exposure. In Quebec, the story was different.
Canada challenged the French ban, arguing that chrysotile was safer than many alternative products and that Canada’s chrysotile had been given a bad rap because of the more harmful amphibole fibers that share the same generic “asbestos” name. Bans around the world were killing the province’s most prized industry, a source of thousands of jobs.
“I wanted to know who was telling the truth, so I did my own research,” Marier said.
The World Trade Organization found that France’s ban on importing asbestos products was legal. The four experts selected to advise the WTO agreed “there is no safe level of exposure to any kind of asbestos, ‘controlled use’ as defined by Canada is unrealistic and not known to occur anywhere in the world, and safer substitutes for chrysotile asbestos products are available,” according to an analysis by asbestos expert Barry Castleman.
Marirer, siding against asbestos, started her career as an activist by writing letters to newspapers throughout Quebec. After a 2003 conference in Ottawa sponsored by the anti-asbestos group Ban Asbestos, she teamed up with Lanthier and Rousseau to form the Asbestos Victims Association of Quebec.
They took on Prior Informed Consent as their first major issue. In 2001, the United Nations had recommended that chrysotile be included under the Prior Informed Consent procedure of the Rotterdam Convention, requiring that countries exporting PIC-listed chemicals notify importing countries of the hazardous content.
Canada took the position that chrysotile should be excluded from the list, and the Quebec activists went to work.
John Van Raalte, a certified industrial hygienist for the state of New York, went to Thetford Mines, Quebec, to take air samples in homes and test tailings around town for asbestos.
He sampled for asbestos in 26 homes using the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health protocol. Seventeen of the samples exceeded the level that requires cleanup in Manhattan residences following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Fifteen samples exceeded the level that requires cleanup in U.S. schools.
Samples of open asbestos tailings piles had 10 percent asbestos. Some of the gravel in driveways and nearby landscaping contained as much as 80 percent or 100 percent asbestos.
The study was meant as a preliminary effort to determine if there needs to be a comprehensive investigation of asbestos contamination in Thetford.
“What we found is yes, there is an issue here,” he said. “There needs to be a study. The question is who’s going to do it.”
Marier has sent the study to the Quebec health agency and a committee will review it. If it finds the study’s methods sound, it will decide what action to take.
Van Raalte believes that, like in Libby, Mont., the industry will have to die before any real action is taken in Thetford. Too much of the province’s history is tied up in it.
“Libby is small potatoes compared to Thetford, and no one in Thetford is even making an issue of it,” Van Raalte said. “Someday I think they’ll have to clean that up or evacuate it.”
William Charney is a an American occupational health advocate who has spent a lot of time in Quebec trying to expose asbestos in places such as mines, schools, public buildings and hospitals.
“We’ve proven the contamination,” Charney said. “What’s left is the social organizing which has been very difficult.”
Charney took a group of miners to Boston for screenings. Half of them had asbestos-related diseases, but they had been told by doctors in the mining towns that there was nothing wrong with them.
“It’s a real scandal,” he said. “It’s been very well hidden. We don’t know the exact impact. Nobody’s really been able to shine the light of day on it. Unions are still very much blocking any effort to provide information. They still want to provide jobs rather than health.”
As Marier waits to see what will come of the study, most of AVAQ’s efforts are concentrated in the Thetford region, helping one victim at a time.
They help people sick with asbestosis and asbestos cancers and the widows of deceased workers file for government compensation – a task that Rousseau’s father, Herve Rousseau, had done for years.
“I think it is beginning to be understood by people,” Marier said of the dangers. “People are not willing to speak except for Rousseau. People are afraid. All around there are people who think like him but don’t want to speak.”