So last week, more than 20 years after the federal government stopped using asbestos in the insulation of federal buildings and banned the use of the mineral in building materials across Canada, it was announced that they would no longer resist the implementation of similar laws in other countries. As a result an entire region of Eastern Quebec will no doubt lose its main industry and thousands will be out of work very shortly. The final nail in the coffin of an industry that was once referred to as “Canada’s Gold” has at last been driven.
In the 1970s Canada was the world’s largest producer of asbestos and for decades as the world wide demand for the mineral has dwindled we have resisted the listing of it as a hazardous material and the banning of its use world-wide. In an act of what can only be called arrogant duplicity Canada banned the mineral domestically and spent billions to remove it from buildings all over the country and yet still promoted its export and fought against its ban on the world stage. In recent years Canada had even attempted to take our friend and ally France to court at the WTO to prevent them from enacting a similar law against the use of asbestos in new construction. It was the loss of this lawsuit and pressure from the international community that finally caused last week’s announcement.
Asbestos has been linked to lung cancer and respiratory disease, with the first suspected death due to inhalation of asbestos fibers dating back to 1906 and the first truly documented case of lung cancer as a result recorded in the UK in 1924. The use of asbestos in construction peaked in the reconstruction boom after World War II but by the late 1960s and 70s the links to illness were undeniable and the law suits started. By the early 1980s countries all over the world were beginning to ban its use and shut down mining operations.
The reasons behind Canada’s continued support of the asbestos mining industry had as much to do with domestic tensions within the province of Quebec as with anything else. But at the end of the day it comes to down to a perverted application of development economics. While the developed world long ago recognized the hazardous effects of asbestos and weighed the health risks against the economic advantages of inexpensive construction, developing countries couldn’t afford that luxury. The demand for inexpensive insulation in the construction of infrastructure in developing nations continues to this day and asbestos is still prevalent in everything from government offices to schools and hospitals all across sub-Saharan Africa, South East Asia and the middle-east. The fact that Canada, per capita one of the wealthiest nations on earth, was until know still promoting the export of a known carcinogen to poor nations and thereby placing the health of millions below the economic wellbeing of a few thousand miners was beyond deplorable. Even though that now a few towns in Eastern Quebec are going to go through some serious economic hardship Canada is more than capable of provided assistance to those individuals without causing further damage to human lives on the other side of the world.
But let’s be honest, the fact that Canada is officially out of the asbestos business doesn’t mean that a world-wide ban on its use is coming any time soon. It just means that Russia and China are now unchallenged in their dominance of the industry and I for one am happy to let that dubious distinction remain with them. Human life is too valuable to be measured in dollars and cents, especially when those dollars end up being the difference between life and death.