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Tories under mounting pressure to move on asbestos

The Conservative government is under increasing pressure from activists, health advocates and even one of its own retired ministers to take action on exports of chrysotile asbestos.

Former Transport Minister and MP for Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon wrote an op-ed in yesterday's Globe and Mail calling on the federal government to put the cancer-causing mineral on a global list of hazardous products known as the Rotterdam Convention.

Strahl, who was diagnosed with lung cancer caused by his exposure to asbestos as a logger, wrote in his Globe opinion piece that Canada should support listing asbestos in the Rotterdam Convetion “not because chrysotile, or white, asbestos is the most dangerous (it's not) or because it cannot be used safely in some circumstances (it can), but because importers and exporters have the right to know it can be problematic if misused.”

Canadian delegates are in Geneva this week negotiating what will be included in the Rotterdam Convention treaty.

Government officials haven't indicated whether they will support a recommendation to put chrysotile asbestos on the list of banned or restricted chemicals, but have blocked efforts in the past. Dimitri Soudas, the Prime Minister's communications director, has said that this type of asbestos can be used safely under controlled conditions; however numerous scientific bodies, including the World Health Organization and the International Agency for Research on Cancer say fundamentally that all forms of asbestos are carcinogenic (cancer-causing) for humans.

"My jaw dropped when I heard [Soudas' statement]," Dr. Matthew Stanbrook, a specialist in respirology at Toronto's University Health Network told Macleans' magazine in an article today, 'Can asbestos be used safely?'. "It's so completely misrepresentative of the science."

There is a growing call for Canada to go even further than the Rotterdam Convention by banning asbestos exports outright. Last February, the Canadian Cancer Society and 25 other health organizations sent a letter to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty urging his government to cease funding the Chrysotile Institute (an industry lobby group) and to cease the export of asbestos to the developing world. Asbestos is commonly used in construction materials in India, for example, which imports almost all of its asbestos from Canada and has negligible health and safety standards for its handling, according to a February 2011 report in the Lancet.

An online campaign, launched this month to encourage Canadians to directly contact their MP's directly about this issue.

Colleen Kimmett reports for The Tyee.

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