A deadly disdain for science

Originally published in the Montreal Gazette on July 14th, 2011. To go to the Montreal Gazette website please click here

In the atmospheric film Silent Hill, a dead mining town is forever shrouded in fog and falling ash, while those unfortunate enough to visit also find themselves forever trapped in an alternate reality, where science and morality have no hold.

It’s an apt metaphor for Quebec’s dying and deadly asbestos industry, as it slowly suffocates in a chrysotile cloud. But even more so, it’s an apt metaphor for the federal government’s asbestos policy, just the latest example of the Conservatives’ embrace of an alternate reality bereft of science and morality.

That policy received worldwide condemnation recently, after Canada became the only country in the world to oppose listing chrysotile asbestos under Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention, a multilateral treaty covering the importation of hazardous chemicals. Listing a substance on Annex III triggers the Convention’s Prior Informed Consent Procedure, which requires exporting countries to inform importers of the hazards that exist, and of the precautionary measures they ought to take in handling the substance.

Listing chrysotile does not, therefore, amount to banning the substance. Yet Canada opposed its listing anyway, and since the Convention operates by consensus, chrysotile remains absent from Annex III. Thanks to Canada, then, chrysotile exporters have no responsibility even to warn importers that they are dealing with a deadly carcinogen, or to advise them about safe handling.

Many critics, shocked by the government’s rank hypocrisy, noted that chrysotile is effectively banned in Canada, with some 96 per cent of Canadian asbestos destined for export to developing countries such as India, Indonesia and Thailand.

In fact, so concerned is the government about asbestos that it is spending more than $800 million to have it removed from the Parliament Buildings, including the prime minister’s office and his official residence at 24 Sussex Drive.

Others critics expressed surprise that the government would risk Canada’s international reputation by adopting a position in direct conflict with scientific evidence and any sense of morality, just to protect fewer than 500 jobs in Quebec’s dying asbestos industry.

The feds’ decision has therefore been met with both shock and surprise. Yet while the shock is understandable, the surprise is not: Anyone familiar with the history of this file will see this latest decision as characteristic of the Conservatives’ defence of asbestos and, more generally, of their hostility toward science and truth.

Canada has played a leading role in preventing the listing of chrysotile for many years, and had faced the wrath of the world long before this year. Consequently, in November 2007 Health Canada convened an international panel of asbestos experts and asked them to assess the risks of chrysotile.

The panel submitted its report in March 2008. Although Health Canada had promised to publish the report on its website, as is customary, no report appeared. This did not, however, stop Industry Minister Christian Paradis from mendaciously claiming that panel members disagreed about the “safe use” of chrysotile.