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Asbestos It Still Makes Us Sick

CANADA HAS A DARK PAST when it comes to asbestos. Although the dangers of asbestos were documented as early as 1900, half a century passed before this information was made public. Asbestos is a fibrous mineral with a composition that makes it incredibly fire-resistant yet soft and pliable--and adapted for use in thousands of products. Since the 1970s, a multitude of scientific studies, campaigns, lawsuits and regulations have been introduced to restrict asbestos use and protect workers from exposure. The US and Europe have banned white (chrysotile) asbestos--but in Canada, no such ban exists.

The Canadian government claims that asbestos is safe under controlled conditions. But critics maintain that those controlled environments rarely exist. And in spite of reduced exposure, asbestos-related diseases continue to appear because symptoms often take 20-50 years to manifest. When a person breathes in asbestos particles, the microscopic fibres rip apart lung tissue leaving scars and impairing breathing (a condition known as asbestosis). The fibres can also cause mesothelioma--a rare and fatal form of cancer. And even secondary exposure poses a threat to human health. Asbestos-related illnesses have been diagnosed in people whose only exposure may have been to a family member's asbestos-covered work clothes.

Environmental exposure is also a major concern, says Daniel Green of the Sierra Club. Long after the mines have closed, asbestos towns still have mountains of tailings--piles of unstable asbestos matter which, left to the elements, can become airborne.

Canada, once one of the world's largest producers of white asbestos, is still promoting its export. In November 2003, the Canadian government derailed attempts to have this substance listed as a Prior Informed Consent substance under the Rotterdam Convention, the treaty that governs international trade of hazardous chemicals. This listing would hinder Canadian export of asbestos to developing countries. So while asbestos is quietly being removed from Canadian buildings, it continues to be exported to the Third World.

Find out more on the Ban Asbestos Canada website at