Relief at Canada’s asbestos ban, dismay at exemptions

A nationwide ban on asbestos introduced in Canada has been welcomed by unions and campaigners, however loopholes that allow some asbestos exports and the exploitation of asbestos tailings have caused alarm.

Commenting on the ban, which will come into force on 30 December 2018, Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) president Hassan Yussuff said: “We can all breathe easier. The introduction of these regulations in a timely manner is the result of years of advocacy and hard work by people dedicated to safer, healthier workplaces.

“Today, I celebrate and thank the government for giving the next generation of Canadians a better future, free from the pain and suffering caused by asbestos.”

He added: “We look forward to continuing to work with the federal government on the broader whole-of-government strategy to protect Canadians from the harms of asbestos.”

However, federal environment minister Catherine McKenna faced criticism in parliament on export loopholes and the decision to exempt the processing of asbestos wastes from the ban, in order to recover magnesium. She responded that the ban was “comprehensive” and added: “There is no impact on human health.”

Critics say this is not true. They point out the occupational exposure standard for asbestos to be used on an Alliance Magnesium (AMI) asbestos wastes project, to be run with financial backing from the federal government, is that favoured by the asbestos industry. It allows workers to be exposed to levels of asbestos ten times greater than is permitted anywhere else in Canada or in the western world.

Exposures at even these lower levels are linked to cancer. Internationally acclaimed anti-asbestos campaigner Kathleen Ruff said the government had “succumbed to vested interests,” adding: “I would give them huge credit for finally moving to ban asbestos…  But I’m troubled by the fact that there are these weaknesses and gaps and, if anything, they seem to have gotten worse.”

The asbestos wastes project has also received multimillion-dollar financial backing from the provincial government in Quebec. Both the federal and Quebec governments previously supported the province’s asbestos industry.

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