Toxic Bodies Lecture Series: Canada’s ‘Rogue Nation’ Position on Asbestos

November 23, 2011 - 1:30am

Dr. Colin Soskolne
Doors open 6:30PM, fee by donation

The first lecture in the 2011/2012 Toxic Bodies Lecture Series

Canada’s ‘Rogue Nation’ Position on Asbestos


Asbestos is a natural mineral with unusual qualities. It is strong and resists high temperatures. It has been used for the past 4,500 years. The ancient Greeks wove it into oil lamp wicks, funeral shrouds and ceremonial tablecloths. During the 1800s, it insulated the hot engines, boilers and piping that powered the Industrial Revolution. In 2006, 2.3 million tonnes of Chrysotile asbestos were mined worldwide, with Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Canada, and Brazil producing 93% of this total. And, for thousands of years, asbestos has been associated with lung problems and premature death. Today, many health and labour organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Labour Organization (ILO) and reputable Canadian health agencies, decry the use of asbestos, particularly since there are safe substitutes.

Abundant documentation – much of it obtained from industry’s own secret archives – substantiates that illness and premature death from asbestos are entirely preventable.  While scientific evidence of harm was available, industry and governmental efforts to suppress and distort the evidence has been documented. These strategies have quashed dissent and criticism, destroyed careers, kept workers ill protected, and blocked victim compensation. In Canada, a systemic bias in support of powerful, moneyed asbestos interests since the mid-1940s persists. While there is virtually no use of asbestos across Canada, the country chooses to mine and export it. Canada stands alone among developed nations in maintaining the double-standard of exporting asbestos while not using it at home. Essentially, the government of Canada claims that asbestos can be used safely in developing countries. The data, however, show the exact opposite.

Because those who hold positions of power are accountable for the decisions they take, the more serious the consequences of the decision, the higher the level of accountability and transparency required. This is the foundation of human rights and democratic freedoms. So, when those who hold high positions of public trust take decisions that will cause loss of life and refuse to provide any reason for their action, this represents a serious violation of human rights and democratic accountability. To the point, the government of Canada not only refused to allow Chrysotile asbestos to be put on the 2011 Rotterdam Convention’s list of hazardous substances, it refused to give any reason to the Canadian public, in whose name it acts, or to the delegates participating in the meeting.

Dictators feel no necessity to give reasons for how they wield power over others. The conduct by the Canadian government at the Rotterdam Convention is a disturbing example of how a country that claims to be democratic demonstrated total disregard for human rights and democratic accountability. Indeed, the right to prior informed consent with regard to hazardous substances, provided by the Convention, is a critical public health tool. It is a right that Canadians enjoy. The refusal of the government of Canada to allow developing countries to have that right is an unethical double-standard, where those who are the most vulnerable, instead of being afforded the greatest protection from harm, are given the least protection. Canada stands alone in the developed
world for its position on asbestos; hence the label ‘rogue nation’.

About Dr. Soskolne

Dr. Soskolne, Professor in the University of Alberta School of Public Health, and Fellow of the American College of Epidemiology, is known internationally as a leading contributor to the study of epidemiology and environmental health.


TELUS World of Science
Edmonton , AB