Monday » October 20 » 2008
'Death by Canada'
PARIS -- Solemn and silent, 6,000 sign-carrying men and women glided slowly last week past my restaurant window. At first glance: a typical mob of all-purpose leftist protesters. Then I saw their signs. These denounced l'amiante -- asbestos. Remembering the unending tragedy of Canada's "export of cancer," I went out to chat with marchers.
First impression: a sea of white hair. These were not workers, but retirees. Second impression: sad faces. These were not the usual happy-go-lucky, partying demonstrators with noise-makers, bull-horns, drums and rat-a-tat slogans that pump up standard union protests. They were, as their signs and pamphlets claimed, victims of agonizing "death by Canada."
"We can't understand why Canada, a civilized country, not only allows, but pushes such poisonous exports," one man in his 60s told me. It's such a blot on your image." Andeva, the French victims' collective organizing the demonstration, estimates 100,000 new asbestos victims in France by 2011.
Canada is a culprit in two of Paris's most spectacular asbestos messes: the 59-storey Tour Montparnasse and the University of Paris's Jussieu science campus. The Montparnasse tower, built in the 1970s under President Georges Pompidou, disfigures the Paris skyline. It's also a costly, life-threatening poison-trap.
Building owners have budgeted 110 million euros ($176 million) to clean common areas of asbestos. Condo office-owners will have to pay an extra 800,000 euros per floor ($1.3-million) to remove the 70 tons of asbestos-poisoned waste at each level. Completion? Maybe 2011. Illnesses already caused construction workers and the current 5,000 office-workers? Likely a huge long-term time-bomb.
Completed in 1972, Jussieu is one of France's top science campuses. A complex of 37 buildings near the Seine, it contains various types of asbestos, including "less-damaging" chrysotile. The 1995 Jussieu asbestos scandal terrified all France -- countless other schools had used the same toxic materials. In 2004, courts ordered compensation of about 30,000 euros each to 11 sick plaintiffs. As of 2008, 130 people using the infected buildings suffered asbestos-related illnesses: cancer, asbestosis, pleural plaques.
For almost 35 years, the Jussieu saga has excited the media. Endless reports, lawsuits, demonstrations and building closures disrupted studies. Frightened science students and professors had the choice of studying in dangerous buildings or leaving the university. Financial costs run to hundreds of millions of euros. Cost in harmed or delayed careers is incalculable, and years of cleaning-up remain.
How is Canada involved? As an exporter of chrysotile asbestos. Reflecting Quebec political pressures, our diplomatic and trade officials push the pro-asbestos case aggressively. Canada's government, especially today's Tories, blocks chrysotile-doubting science reports. It paralyzes international efforts such as the 2004 Rotterdam Convention, which demands fair warnings on toxic-chemical exports. Ottawa even co-funds the industry lobby -- the speciously "scientific" Chrysotile Institute, which recently launched a libel suit against a victims' group.
The latest report scaring the government was ordered by Canada's federal Health Minister Tony Clement earlier this year. It may again cast doubt on the safety of chrysotile asbestos. But the Harper government, handmaiden of the asbestos industry and craving Quebec votes, refuses to release it. Will it be suppressed, or merely censored?
The Quebec government, eager to protect a piddling "almost 550" asbestos jobs, presses Ottawa to find (ill-informed) foreign markets to replace all-too-aware domestic ones. Strategy: sell the lethal stuff to desperate-to-develop Third World nations where worker protection is weak.
Health Canada -- did George Orwell invent that name? -- peddles acrobatic reassurances to convince the public that a little cancer is not really so bad. It insists: "If asbestos fibres are enclosed or tightly bound in a product ... there are no significant health risks. Asbestos poses health risks only when fibres are present in the air that people breathe."
But bindings come loose or break with nobody knowing. And when workers renovate or tear down a wall, siding or house, the death-dealing fibres escape -- harming workers and anybody nearby.
Health Canada also argues there are two kinds of asbestos -- the really awful kind (amphibole asbestos) and the just-a-little-awful kind (chrysotile asbestos). The department charged with protecting Canadians' health offers this lyrical endorsement of the less awful kind: "It is generally accepted that chrysotile asbestos is less potent and does less damage to the lungs than the amphiboles." Less potent? Less damage? Not harmless, not "safe?"
Canada's pro-asbestos policy is cynical, hypocritical, shameful and indefensible. Deliberately tricking impoverished nations by sabotaging fair warnings, it betrays Canadian values as a decent, environment-friendly country.
Does Stephen Harper have the integrity to stop fooling poor nations about our still-risky asbestos? Let the separatist Bloc Québécois cry "anti-Quebec." Harper could play hard ball: He could call them "the cancer party."
Keith Spicer is a former Citizen editor who lives and writes in Paris.
© The Ottawa Citizen 2008