For over 120 years, Canada has had an ongoing love affair with asbestos. So much so, in fact, that the country once boasted the world’s largest asbestos mine, had a town named after the deadly mineral, and even nicknamed asbestos “Canada’s gold.”
To the delight of anti-asbestos advocates, it seems that this toxic relationship may finally be coming to an end.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced plans to move forward with a complete ban on asbestos. Speaking this week at a union conference in Ottawa, Trudeau was asked by a union representative if the federal government was considering a total ban on asbestos. Trudeau replied:
“We’ve actually made a commitment that we’re moving forward on a ban here in Canada. We are moving to ban asbestos. We know that its impact on workers far outweighs any benefit that it might provide.”
Trudeau also said that the Canadian government was “making sure [they are] putting forward a registry of all buildings that have asbestos in them.”
Although the World Health Organization (WHO) has labelled all types of asbestos as highly carcinogenic, the import and use of the mineral is still legal in both the United States and in Canada. Most other developed countries in the world – including all countries in the European Union, Australia, and Japan – have banned asbestos completely. 55 countries have banned it entirely.
Asbestos: The Silent Killer
Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral. During the 20th Century, asbestos was valued in construction and manufacturing for its strength and ability to resist heat and flame. Although asbestos looks harmless in its raw state – resembling normal rock or a fibrous, gray cotton – as well as when it’s included in other materials (such as roofing, building insulation, cement, wire lining, and automotive parts), any level of exposure to the mineral is extremely hazardous.
Over the past 100 years, medical evidence has proven again and again that asbestos causes many deadly diseases in humans. One of the more lethal aspects of asbestos is that if a fiber is inhaled, it can seldom be removed from a victim’s lungs. Once inside the lungs, the rough fibers can horribly scar the inner tissue, a condition known as asbestosis. Mesothelioma, a rare and deadly form of cancer, is also caused exclusively by exposure to asbestos.
According to the WHO, over 107,000 people around the world die from asbestos-related causes each year. Asbestos is the number one cause of workplace death in Canada, killing over 2,000 Canadian workers annually.
A Step in the Right Direction
Because of Canada’s vast natural resources, trading relationship with America, and historic fondness for asbestos, the country became one of the powerhouses of the asbestos mining industry during the 20th Century. By 1966, Canada was producing 40 percent of the world’s chrysotile asbestos.
A love for asbestos, though, certainly has its consequences. In the 70s, researchers declared that Canada’s asbestos mining towns – most of which were situated in the province of Quebec – were some of the deadliest mining sites in the world. Increasing awareness led to tougher regulation, and in 2011 the last of Canada’s asbestos mines finally closed down. While export of the mineral was banned, the import and use of asbestos in manufacturing – in car parts, housing materials, etc. – was allowed to continue, as is the case in the U.S.
Trudeau’s announcement to completely abolish asbestos in Canada marks an unprecedented step towards the elimination of an evil material that murders thousands of North American people every year.
Canada Setting the Right Example for the United States
If Canada bans asbestos entirely, the U.S., becoming the last industrialized country not to have done so, could feel greater pressure to follow suit. The U.S. government would have few remaining excuses not to ban the carcinogenic mineral if they can no longer point to their neighbors to the north.
Unfortunately, however, perhaps unlike Canada, the American government is overrun by lobbyists who promote the interests of major corporations. For this reason, such an obvious decision like banning a deadly material that kills everyone it comes into contact with hasn’t yet been made.
The corporations of the asbestos industry – Koch Industries, DuPont, 3M, and Georgia-Pacific, to name a few – know perfectly well how deadly asbestos is, but they refuse to stop using it out of fear of losing profitability. Furthermore, their clout in government helps them shape policy so that they keep making billions while American workers keep dying. Perhaps Trudeau’s decision can shift the power so that the U.S., too, can end its long and toxic love affair with asbestos.