06/15/2011 08:20 EDT | Updated 08/15/2011 05:12 EDT

Chrysotile Asbestos: Harper Government Defends Carcinogen Despite Rotterdam Pressure


THE CANADIAN PRESS - OTTAWA - The Conservative government continues to claim that Canada's chrysotile asbestos can be used safely "under controlled conditions."

But with a major international conference in Geneva less than a week away, the government is refusing to say what position Canada will take when its global partners ask that the known carcinogen be included on a list of hazardous chemicals.

Canada has twice played a lead role in blocking the inclusion of asbestos under the Rotterdam Convention, which operates by consensus.

Christian Paradis, currently Canada's minister of Industry, boasted about Canada's blocking role to La Tribune newspaper in Sherbrooke in November 2009.

"We have shown our support for the position of safe use of chrysotile by opposing twice the inclusion of chrysotile under the Rotterdam Convention," he told the newspaper, "and be assured that as long as the Conservative government of Stephen Harper is in power, that's how it will be."

Despite effectively banning asbestos domestically -- and spending tens of millions of dollars to have it removed from public buildings, including Parliament -- Canada is one of the world's main exporters.

The Rotterdam Convention, which Canada ratified in 2002, is aimed at promoting "shared responsibility and co-operative efforts among parties in the international trade of certain hazardous chemicals."

Its main goal is to ensure "prior informed consent" by countries that are importing hazardous chemicals, so that they can make proper policy decisions about how to handle the material safely -- if they choose to handle it at all.

Despite Paradis' bold talk to a local newspaper in Quebec's asbestos-producing region, the Harper government is playing coy about what position Canada takes to Geneva.

Paradis told CBC News Network that Canada's position hasn't changed in 30 years and that "we won't necessarily recommend the listing" of chrysotile in Geneva.

The Industry and Environment departments tossed media inquiries back and forth for more than 24 hours without providing any substantive response, before informing The Canadian Press late Tuesday the government would have no further comment.

Dimitri Soudas, Harper's communications director, said by email that various Canadian governments have "promoted the safe and controlled use of chrysotile, both domestically and internationally," for more than 30 years.

"All scientific reviews clearly confirm that chrysotile fibres can be used safely under controlled conditions," said Soudas.

Like Industry and Environment, the Prime Minister's Office did not respond to direct questions about Canada's position on asbestos and the Rotterdam Convention.

But a coalition of more than 200 individual doctors and organizations -- including the Canadian Cancer Society, the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Public Health Association -- had much to say Tuesday.

In an open letter to Harper, the group said Canada is "not acting as a responsible global citizen, thus harming Canada's international reputation."

It noted that chrysotile asbestos is listed as a hazardous substance under Canadian law and stated it is "wrong to apply a double standard of inferior protection for people in developing countries."

Federal New Democrats, who won 59 of Quebec's 75 seats in the May 2 election, also reiterated their long-standing demand Tuesday that Canada stop exporting the carcinogen.

"I was told by Conservatives going into the last election that the New Democratic position on banning the export of asbestos would hurt us politically in Quebec," NDP MP Nathan Cullen told a news conference, before pausing for dramatic effect. "Apparently not."

Dr. Fernand Turcotte, professor emeritus of preventive medicine and public health at the medical school of Université Laval, told a news conference on Parliament Hill that there's "no safe level of exposure" to asbestos.

"This is why whenever we discover that we are handling some carcinogen, the only acceptable standard is zero exposure."

The NDP produced an internal document that shows Health Canada officials also recommended in 2006 that chrysotile asbestos go on the Rotterdam list, but were overruled.

Health Canada's "preferred position would be to list, as this is consistent with controlled use -- i.e. let people know about the substance so they have the information they need, thru (sic) prior informed consent, to ensure they handle and use the substance correctly."

The internal Health Canada email "acknowledges the final decision will not be made on the basis of health alone, and other key factors will need to be considered."

Up to 400 jobs in an economically depressed region of Quebec could be lost if the asbestos mines were shut down, and the Liberal provincial government last year promised a $58-million loan guarantee to expand one operation.