MONTREAL - More than 150 international and Canadian public health organizations and individual scientists are demanding a worldwide ban on the mining, export and use of asbestos.
The demand on Tuesday comes after last month's announcement by the Quebec government it would lend $58 million to help reopen the Jeffrey Mine in the town of Asbestos.
"The science is clear that all forms of asbestos cause ill health and premature death," said Colin Soskolne, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta and one of those demanding the ban.
"According to the World Health Organization, over 107,000 people die each year from working with asbestos of any type," added Soskolne, a former president of the Canadian Society of Epidemiology and Biostatistics.
But Serge Boislard, president of the Mouvement pro chrysotile, said that's not the whole picture.
"Everyone knows that chrysotile, like all other forms of asbestos, is carcinogenic," he said. "What is not addressed is the levels of danger. These are half-truths."
Industry proponents have insisted asbestos can be used safely if it is handled properly.
The industry in Quebec appeared on the verge of collapse but the government loan and private investment could keep production and exports going for another 20 years.
"This immoral practice of exporting it, particularly to developing countries when we refuse to use it at home, is immoral and unacceptable to people in the field of public health," Soskolne said in a telephone interview.
"The decision of the Quebec government to provide a $58-million loan guarantee to revive the mine is a shameful display of disregard for science."
Asbestos opponents are urging major producers — Brazil, Canada, Kazakhstan and Russia — to put an end to mining and exports and help communities make the transition to a different industry.
The groups calling for the ban come from 20 different countries. They said in a joint statement that countries should tell citizens about the health hazards of dealing with asbestos. Activists argue that asbestos is linked to cancer.
The last two remaining asbestos facilities in Canada — including Jeffrey Mine — are in Quebec. The other mine is also shuttered but proponents hope it will be reopened.
Federal Industry Minister Christian Paradis, in Montreal to announce a series of cultural grants, defended the Canadian approach to asbestos.
"Our government has always advocated the safe approach toward chrysotile fibre, not only in its mining but also its use," he said. "This is a policy that was fashioned during the last 30 years. There are ways to use it safely. However, I understand the numerous challenges facing the industry at this time."
Paradis acknowledged one of the challenges is ensuring asbestos is safely used in developing countries. He said clients who sign contracts with the Jeffrey Mine contain clauses on safe use.
"There has to be control," he said. "I can't say what will happen in the future but the safe-use policy does exist. It can be done correctly, not only at the level of extraction but also at the level of handling and use. We do it here in Canada and it must be done elsewhere in the world."