ASBESTOS, Quebec – There appears to be a scientific miracle happening about 75 miles north of the U.S.- Canadian border and it’s angering hundreds of physicians and public health workers around the globe.
Politicians, entrepreneurs and bureaucrats in Quebec insist that chrysotile ore being pulled from Canada’s last asbestos mine is today perfectly safe, harmless to the miners and the workers and consumers who will handle it.
Physicians and toxicologists throughout the world vehemently disagree and say that over the years chrysotile or white asbestos fibers has caused the deaths of millions.
“Chrysotile asbestos is a known human carcinogen, a widely held fact that has been accepted by public health scientists and health agencies for decades,” Dr. Christopher Weis told me this week.
“In the U.S. alone, hundred of thousands of have died from mesothelioma, other forms of lung cancer and asbestosis due breathing chrysotile fibers,” said Weis, who is senior toxicologist, Office of the Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health.
Inside the World’s Largest Asbestos Mine
At the heart of the current controversy is the Mine Jeffrey, the world’s largest asbestos mine and the last of several exhausted asbestos pits clustered in Quebec’s Eastern Township area. From this region, for more than a century, has come almost 90 percent of the world’s commercial asbestos.
At the Jeffrey, carefully terraced roads cut into jagged serpentine rock spiral down the walls of the pit, 1,500 feet to the bottom. It’s a mile wide and almost a mile-and-a-half long, with two huge processing mills on its rim.
Foreign investors want to purchase Mine Jeffrey in Asbestos, Quebec, to supply the world’s asbestos market.
From the high tourist overlooks, the 200-ton yellow dump trucks, cranes and dozers, with their 10-foot-high tires, looked like toys. They once rumbled along the narrow switchback roads around the clock. But no longer. Now, they are quiet and pretty much picked clean.
A workforce that once numbered in the thousands has fewer than 200, most part time. However, beneath a vivid blue lake of runoff water pooled on the floor of the gigantic Jeffrey pit is an almost completed underground shaft that engineers and geologists say may be the portal to the largest known reserve of asbestos in the world.
The mine’s owner, Bernard Coulombe, didn’t reply to my emails on his proposed underground operation. But, Baljit Chadha, a Montreal-based entrepreneur who is leading a consortium, Balcorp Ltd., of foreign investors that wants to purchase the mine, says that if he can buy Jeffrey, he can supply much of the world’s asbestos market for at least 25 years.
Chadha’s would-be investors — from Canada, Europe, Brazil and India — have asked the Quebec government for a $57 million loan guarantee (U.S. dollars) to complete construction of the underground mine here, which they say will bring new life to this moribund asbestos-producing region, 95 miles east of Montreal.
Chadha — who has sold Canadian asbestos to India and other countries for the past 15 years –says that the loan will spawn a new generation of asbestos miners and will bring at least 500 new jobs to this community.
But it is where the consortium plans to ship this carcinogenic material that has outraged human rights advocates.
Balcorp says all of the asbestos produced from Mine Jeffrey would be exported to Asia, with about half going to India and the rest to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan and the Philippines. The countries all seem to share one thing: a lax or nonexistent asbestos-control process.
Canada is widely respected as one of the world’s most civil and polite places and is lauded for spending more to take care of its citizens than any other nation. Yet, many Canadian leaders say they fully favor shipping the lethal product to nations where, asbestos experts say, people are least likely know how to protect themselves from asbestos and how it can kill them.
“It is almost beyond belief that a free and democratic nation like Canada is willing to sacrifice human lives in poor and developing nations on the altar of avarice and greed,” said Dr. Michael Harbut, a cancer specialist who is the chief of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Michigan’s Karmanos Cancer Institute.
If this profit-over-safety attitude is commonplace in developed countries, experts worry what’s going to happen to safety restrictions in countries where bribes and baksheesh are the norm.
The National Academy of Sciences, EPA, NIOSH, OSHA and 55 countries around the world do not concur with Canada as to chrysotile’s safety.
“Canada seems to care more for its own economic well-being and not weigh the horrible effects their greed will have on the lives of countless others throughout the world will suffer and die from continued exposure to asbestos,” Dr. Richard Lemen, former U.S. assistant surgeon general, told me.
“The notion that their asbestos is ‘safe’ or that ‘controlled usage’ will result in no disease is a myth.”
The countries that the Canadians plan to export the chrysotile to know little about occupational safety, said Egilman, who has funded numerous medical programs in this part of the world.
“It is ludicrous, completely absurd, to believe that some countries in … southern and Southeast Asia can implement safe work policies that have been impossible to implement in Western countries,” said Egilman, who is also an associate professor of family medicine at Brown University.
Barry Castleman, a noted international asbestos researcher who has long fought for a worldwide ban on the deadly mineral as a representative to the World Trade Organization, add this:
“If this loan deal goes through, it will revive Canada’s asbestos industry and cost untold thousands to die, from Canada continuing to lead the propaganda efforts pushing global asbestos use.”
For a longer version of two stories on this topic, check out this link to what we ran on AOL News.