The West abhors asbestos, not India

Last Updated 06 September 2011, 16:16 IST

Keyserlingk, a neighbour and good friend on the Canadian mountain lake where we spend our summers, had been a history professor and a wonderful gardener. Forty years earlier, he was a cadet in the Canadian Navy, in an era when the plumbing and wiring in naval vessels were routinely coated with asbestos.

In the 2 1/2 years he struggled with his disease, he and his wife, Michaela, a textile conservator, became involved in the political campaign against the continued mining of asbestos, specifically chrysotile, or white asbestos, in Canada, and its export to the third world.

This summer, to Mrs Keyserlingk’s surprise and in a rather peculiar way, her continuing campaign was thrust into the limelight. The Conservative Party, which is currently governing Canada and has steadfastly supported asbestos mining, sent her a sharp notice demanding that she cease using the party’s logo on the modest Web site for her campaign. It threatened “further action” if she did not comply.

Deadly export
Mrs Keyserlingk had put the Conservative logo on her site and on ads for it, with a red ‘Danger’ sign and the legend, “Canada is the only western country that exports deadly asbestos!”

The Conservative salvo at a 72-year-old widow of a man she called a ‘true-blue’ Conservative quickly spread through blogs, newspapers and television. People from across Canada, including physicians and politicians, began sending letters of support — and cheques, all of which she returned.

“They couldn’t have done anything better,” Mrs Keyserlingk said of the Tories. To the party, her reply was: “I am delighted that someone in the Conservative Party of Canada is finally reacting after years of work by chrysotile asbestos victims.”

The logo remains. Conservative officials have ceased replying to queries about asbestos. All of which made me wonder when, exactly, the Conservatives are going to get the message.

Last June, there were vociferous objections from medical and public-health associations in Canada to the Ottawa government’s blocking the chrysotile in the Rotterdam Convention, a United Nations treaty that identifies hazardous substances. If listed, chrysotile exports would be permitted only to countries that explicitly consent. (Chrysotile is banned in the European Union, and little used in the United States or Canada. But India is among the countries which is a major importer asbestos from Canada.)

Ottawa’s unyielding position is widely viewed as a political sop to the French-speaking province of Quebec, where all the Canadian asbestos is mined, and where the mining occupies a significant place in provincial history.

The government’s position, echoed by the government-supported Chrysotile Institute, is that the material “can be used safely under controlled conditions.” Risk from this variety of asbestos is less than from others that have been banned. But the World Health Organisation, as well as Canadian medical and public-health associations, have declared chrysotile a carcinogen and have urged that it not be used.

For many Canadians, exporting a substance that Canada itself lists as hazardous stands in embarrassing contrast to the country’s self-image as a caring, supportive nation. After the action on chrysotile, Jeffrey Simpson, a columnist for The Globe and Mail, wrote: “We mine asbestos, we ship it, we make money from it, and we’ll use every diplomatic trick in the book to defend this odious practice. We are the Ugly Canadians.”

This sorry situation was not lost on Jon Stewart. In May, his ‘Daily Show’ did a segment entitled ‘Ored to Death’ on a town named Asbestos in Quebec. The comedian Aasif Mandvi asked the owner-director of the mine whether asbestos meant something different in French, “because in English it means slow, hacking death.”

(Published 06 September 2011, 16:16 IST)

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