Scientists protest about Quebec’s “hypocrisy” over export of asbestos

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More than 100 scientists from 28 countries have supported a letter calling on Quebec Premier Jean Charest to listen to international health scientists, including those from his own country, and stop asbestos exports.

They suggest that the Quebec government is practising a double standard because it is “spending millions of dollars to remove chrysotile asbestos and other forms of asbestos from Quebec’s schools, hospitals, and buildings, while at the same time exporting it to developing countries and telling them it is safe.” The practice, which “seems to represent a high level of hypocrisy,” is “bringing dishonour on Quebec’s international reputation,” say the scientists.

The letter was sent to Charest on the eve of his departure for Davos, Switzerland, on an economic mission that includes India, Quebec’s chief customer for chrysotile asbestos.

The letter was sent by the Environmental Health Trust, a body that educates and informs policy on environmental health risks. The trust was founded by Devra Lee Davis, professor of preventive medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Centre in New York

According to the letter, the World Health Organization judges that “all forms of asbestos have been shown to be deadly and that safe use of any form of asbestos has proven impossible anywhere in the world.” “Quebec’s own public health experts, those across Canada, and the Canadian Medical Association and Quebec Cancer Society have all called on asbestos exports to end,” continues the text.

In Quebec itself, exposure to asbestos is the single biggest cause of worker death. Figures for 2009 from the Quebec Workers’ Compensation Board show that 60% of occupational deaths were caused by asbestos.

There were 612 new cases of asbestos related disease in Quebec in 2004, and the annual number of mesothelioma cases in Quebec between 1992 and 2006 rose from 92 to 142. For every case of mesothelioma, asbestos causes two to three times as many cases of lung cancer.

“We find it shocking that the exposure level you endorse for people overseas is ten times higher than the level permitted by all of the other provinces in Canada, by the US, by the European Union, and by other Western industrialised countries. It is 100 times higher than the exposure level permitted in several countries, such as Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands,” says the trust.

The letter was dismissed as re-hashed arguments by the Chrysotile Institute, a Quebec lobby group funded by the provincial government and a fierce defender of the product. The asbestos industry claims chrysotile can be used safely as long as precautions are followed.

A spokesman for Charest, Hugo d’Amours, said after receipt of the scientists’ letter, “We promote safe usage and there are plenty of mechanisms within which the industry works. But it’s clear that those who buy asbestos have a responsibility.”

Questioned by media in Davos, Charest expressed his support for the Chrysotile Institute and said he will not deal with the scientists’ letter to him.

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