Today’s guest post–about an issue many of us had thought had gone away–comes from Krista Peterson, a 23-year old-aspiring writer and recent graduate of the University of Central Florida. Krista is a health and safety advocate who has a passion for the wellness of communities and our environment–which comes, in part, from seeing several of her family members struggle with cancer and other illnesses. Krista tells me that she would like to spread awareness of health and environmental issues through her writing; she plans to attend graduate school to get her master’s degree in Sustainability and Environmental Management. Feel free to contact Krista at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If asked, many Americans would likely say that asbestos, while a threat to human health, is one that has been effectively neutralized. After all, asbestos has been banned in the U.S. and it is being carefully removed from our buildings. Problem solved?
Unfortunately not. For one thing, while asbestos is used much less frequently in the domestic manufacture of construction and other materials, the comprehensive asbestos ban that Congress passed in 1989 was overturned two years later by a federal court. For another, the asbestos issue is global: While asbestos is less of a problem in the U.S., it still poses a significant health risk in other parts of the world.
Though the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat keeps a list of the nations that have banned the mineral, many developing countries have not. Southeast Asia represents the largest market for asbestos imports. Asbestos is typically combined with other materials to add strength and heat-resistance, since the mineral is fireproof at up to 3,800 degrees. While it may have saved lives from fire, there are many healthier alternatives.
More important, we now know asbestos can cause serious health problems such as lung scarring, asbestosis, and mesothelioma, an deadly form of cancer that is nearly always linked to asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma symptoms take between 20 and 50 years to surface, so the health effects of the asbestos boom of the mid-twentieth century are just now being realized.
The largest exporter of asbestos in the world is Russia, but the second largest – which may come as a surprise – is Canada. According to a U.S. Geological Survey report, Canada mined and produced 350,000 tons of the toxic substance in 2010. Unfortunately, a recent attempt by foreign investors to revive Jeffery Mine, one of the largest in the world, means that Canada may actually ramp up export of asbestos.
The Canadian regulators are ready to permit expanded mining of asbestos even though federal and provincial governments continue to remove asbestos-containing products from schools and federal buildings within the country. The fact that Balcorp Ltd., a group of foreign investors that wants to buy the Jeffrey Mine, would sell even larger amounts of the substance to developing countries with poor standards for occupational health smacks of corporate greed; not only that, the company has asked the province of Quebec for a loan guarantee to support the mine.
Reviving the mine would create about 500 new jobs in Asbestos, Quebec – yes, there’s a town named after asbestos — but it would also add to the approximately 107,000 people who die from asbestos-related disease each year. There is simply no responsible way to sell asbestos, and the Canadian people need to realize what is going on in Quebec and hold the corporations and the government responsible.
Businesses prosper when they take into account the well-being of both their employees and their customers. The asbestos industry has a long, well-documented history of doing neither. There are dozens of effective, non-hazardous substances that can provide fireproofing for the construction materials sorely needed in developing countries.
The average life expectancy for those diagnosed with mesothelioma symptoms is 9 to 12 months, and there is no cure. We simply cannot turn a blind eye to this problem, not when at least 80% of mesothelioma cases can be prevented by avoiding exposure to asbestos.
A note from Marc: After accepting this guest post, I discovered that some excellent reporting on the Jeffrey Mine has been done by Andrew Schneider, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. Here is one of his stories, called Exporting Death: Rejuvenating Canada’s Last Asbestos Mine. It’s sobering reading.