Mesothelioma is a vicious cancer, evolves slowly and inevitably leads to death. Once it sets in the lungs and the abdominal cavity, it can then spread to the bones, the heart and the brain. It is a slow killer by definition (slower than lung cancer) but as lethal and more painful – each breath taken depletes the lungs, eating away every fibre – requiring heavy doses of hydro-morphine to suppress the pain.
“The only substance found to cause this type of cancer is asbestos,” said Dr. Fernand Turcotte, oncologist and professor emeritus at the department of social and preventive medicine at Â UniversitÃ© Laval in Quebec City.
“Only a small exposure to asbestos is required to propagate the disease,” he explained. “It kills by ‘wasting’ the energy of the patient, resulting in a loss of weight, an inability to perform basic functions and in the final stage, the pain becomes unbearable”.
According to the World Health Organization, asbestos kills over 100,000 people each year worldwide. They found that no amount is safe to handle. The Health and Safety Executive – an independent watchdog on safety and illness in the UK – came to the same conclusion: “For practical purposes HSE does not assume that such a threshold exists.”
Baljit Singh Chadha sits on Concordia’s Board of Governors, but he is also the president of a company called Balcorp Limited, which has been the exclusive agent of Jeffrey Mines – which owned the asbestos mine until it went bankrupt in 2010 – for 15 years and raked in enormous profits ($100 million) from the sale of asbestos primarily to India.
Chadha has recently been at the forefront of a consortium of banks and private investors who wish to buy the mine back – with a little extra from Quebec taxpayers: a $58 million loan guarantee from the government in exchange for $25 million from the consortium, as a down-payment.
The mine is expected to generate around $100 million per year and create 300 jobs – 300 workers who have every chance of being exposed to chrysotile asbestos, developing mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases and dying. From 2007 to 2011, the company has made more than 45 shipments to India of raw asbestos: approximately 20,000 kg per shipment.
Kathleen Ruff is a former director of British Columbia’s Human Rights Commission and a leading advocate in the fight against asbestos. In 2008 she published a report called Exporting Harm where she details the fallacy of the Canadian government’s use of asbestos.
“It’s a scam that the Quebec government and Chadha are practicing,” she said. “If evidence is put before you and you refuse to deal with it, then you are giving people false information.”
Heidi Von Palleske is someone who knows the ravages of asbestos first-hand. She lost her father, mother and aunt from exposure to asbestos. Recently, her sister has been diagnosed with scaring and calcified plaques on her lungs – again, related to asbestos.
“Mesothelioma is a question of months,” said Von Palleske. “My dad lost so much weight so quickly, he was starting to rot from the inside.”
The most shocking aspect of this story is that Von Palleske’s father was not a miner. He was simply transporting bags of asbestos.
Chadha refused to comment for this article, but his spokesperson, John Aylen, decried the “lot of misinformation” about the issue.
“There is no scientific evidence to support that exposure of less than one fibre per cubic centimetre or less, has any health implications,” he said.
When asked about the proponents who would like to ban the use of asbestos, he replied: “They base their claims on past use, past safety standards and past products that bear little or no resemblance to today’s handling standards and products.”
Yet, in 2005, a report by the Institut national de santÃ© publique – a Quebec government agency – came to this conclusion: “The safe use of asbestos is difficult, perhaps impossible, for industries such as construction, renovation and asbestos processing.”
The INSPQ advised the Quebec Ministry of Health to oppose the policy of the government to promote increased domestic use of chrysotile asbestos.
Chadha sees no problem exporting it abroad. In fact, the only research center that supports the safe use of asbestos is the Chrysotile Institute, located in Montreal.
A lobby group that was created in 1984 and funded entirely by the Canadian and Quebec governments has received more than $50 million from taxpayers in order to promote Quebec’s asbestos industry abroad.
When Aylen was asked how the consortium planned to regulate the sale of asbestos abroad he said: “The consortium will have about 25 clients – the condition of selling to them is that they adhere to the same practices that are in place here, as well as audits and surprise visits.”
It has been widely documented that workers in Bangladesh and in India often work with their bare hands, with little or no protection, wearing bandanas to cover their mouths. It’s difficult to believe that safety standards would be the same as in Quebec, where health agencies have advised against using asbestos.
Ruff spoke with Chadha at a recent meeting in Ottawa that was aimed to alleviate some of the fears about reopening the mine. According to notes taken by her, this is Chadha’s position on health issues surrounding asbestos: “There is no evidence that chrysotile asbestos causes mesothelioma.”
When the question was asked to Aylen, he replied: “There is a link between asbestos and mesothelioma, I’m not sure whether they can claim that it is the only substance that causes it, but it is certainly a prime cause of mesothelioma.”
If 24 Sussex Drive, the prime minister’s residence, is important enough to be inspected for asbestos, and if Public Works Canada condemns the use of chrysotile asbestos by contractors, then children in India should not have to suffer the consequences of a country that uses its good standing to promote a deadly substance abroad.
“This is completely opposite to what a university stands for,” said Ruff. “It’s a contradiction with his role as a governor on the board of a university.”
When Dr. Turcotte was asked how much money the health care system spent on patients affected by asbestos exposure, he replied: “The real costs are those who are suffered by the victims, those that lead to the premature death of a loved one.”
Asbestos has already buried too many miners; how many more must suffer the consequences of bad economics and stupid politics? It’s time for Concordia to take a stand and decide if it wants to be seen in the same light as someone who’s been blamed for “exporting death to India.”