Experts Accuse Canadian Government of Misusing Science

Despite numerous calls for a global asbestos ban, Canada is the world’s fifth-largest exporter, selling about $112 million annually to 80 nations, about 96% of which is shipped to Asia. The United States and all European Union countries banned all mining and exportation of the mineral about a decade ago. Early in 2011, however, Canadian government proposed a $58 million grant to reopen a chrysotile asbestos mine in Quebec. Officials argue that chrysotile asbestos is significantly less carcinogenic than amphibole asbestos, and refuse to recognize the chrysotile mineral as a hazardous substance. Asbestos is a generic term referring to six unique fibers – chrysotile, amosite, crocodolite, tremolite, actinolite, and anthophyllite. From these, the fibers are split into two groups: serpentine, of which only chryostile is designated, and amphibole, which encompasses all other fiber types.

Recent studies concerning the adverse health effects of chrysotile specifically are being held by the Canadian government, delaying their release. The authors of the study are accusing Canadian officials of prioritizing economic and political interests over general public health and wellbeing. Asbestos exposure attorneys are concerned about the potential damage caused by Canada’s continuing exportation of the mineral, which is proven to cause deadly diseases in humans, such as asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer.

In 2006, Canada blocked the addition of chrysotile asbestos to a list of substances that would, under the United Nations’ Rotterdam Convention, require countries importing it to give what’s known as prior informed consent. If chrysotile were on the list, Canada would have to prepare a document discussing any severe restrictions imposed on chrysotile for health or environmental reasons. Importing countries would then decide whether to import the substance, ban it, or restrict it.

The health debate revolves around whether chrysotile asbestos is as carcinogenic as amphibole asbestos, and what level of risk chrysotile poses for contracting mesothelioma and lung cancer.

Panel member and toxicology consultant David Bernstein argued that chrysotile asbestos should not be banned. According to the transcript of a lawsuit in District Court in Ellis County, Texas, asbestos product manufacturer Union Carbide paid Bernstein 4400,500, as well as an additional sum to conduct a study and run a laboratory to evaluate the disease-causing potential of chrysotile asbestos. In October 2007, Bernstein was called as an expert witness on asbestos in a lawsuit brought by Emma Maloney Martin against Quigley Company Inc. Bernstein was also paid previously by Canadian and Californian asbestos mining companies.

During the trial, Bernstein testified that unlike amphibole asbestos, “the shorter chrysotile fibers are removed from the lung and they are not available to cause disease.”
Other panel members say Bernstein’s views that chrysotile asbestos can be handled safely and does not cause disease were widely known and resulted in some “harsh” discussions during panel proceedings. Panel chair Trevor Ogden says Health Canada intended to bring people with divergent views together to see if they could arrive at some consensus about how potently carcinogenic chrysotile asbestos is.

Bice Fubini, a chemistry professor at the University of Turin in Italy, says she disputed Bernstein’s views about whether chrysotile asbestos breaks into pieces and can therefore be safely absorbed in the lungs. She was disturbed to learn about his previous relationship to the asbestos industry, particularly since she has known Bernstein for 18 years and has heard him speak at international conferences.

Ogden, panel chair and editor-in-chief of the Annals of Occupational Hygiene, journal speculates that the 2008 federal election may have contributed to the report’s delay but indicated that he believes trade considerations are foremost in federal minds. “I can only attribute it to the fact that Canada doesn’t want it [the study] interfering with their position on the Rotterdam Convention.” Other panel members surmise that the government fears that the report might negatively influence public opinion against mining and exporting asbestos.

Regardless of the reason, there are certainly major political, economic, medical, and scientific interests playing tug of war in this issue. Lung cancer lawyers at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm advocate on behalf of asbestos exposure victims throughout the United States, and are keeping close tabs on the status of Canadian government in the asbestos trade. If you were exposed to asbestos and developed a related illness, contact one of our attorneys immediately for a free legal consultation.