Can asbestos be used “safely”?

Our new blog ‘Science-ish’ considers the evidence

by Julia Belluz

Photograph by Flickr user shaymus22

The Statement: “All scientific reviews clearly confirm that chrysotile [white asbestos] fibres can be used safely under controlled conditions.” (Dimitri Soudas, PMO communications director, 06/15/2011)

Chrysotile, or white asbestos, is back in the news again, and doctors around the world are questioning the Canadian government’s championing of a substance that has been banned in most developed countries. “My jaw dropped when I heard [Soudas’ statement],” says Dr. Matthew Stanbrook, a specialist in respirology at Toronto’s University Health Network and assistant professor in the department of medicine at the University of Toronto. “It’s so completely misrepresentative of the science.”

The term “asbestos” refers to two types of naturally occurring fibrous minerals: serpentine and amphibole. Chrysotile, derived from serpentine minerals, makes up 100% of the asbestos used and produced in the world today and 95% of all the asbestos used worldwide since 1900. It’s also the stuff Canada produces, alongside such countries as Kazakhstan, China, Brazil, and Russia.

Though there has been some debate about whether chrysotile is less hazardous than other forms of asbestos, the World Health Organization (WHO) is one of many international bodies which doesn’t discriminate among types of the mineral in discussing its dangers. “All forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans, and may cause mesothelioma and cancer of the lung, larynx and ovary,” the organization has concluded, estimating that about 125 million people in the world are exposed to asbestos in the workplace, and that each year, more than 107,000 people die from asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis resulting from occupational exposure. They also estimate that one in three deaths from occupational cancer is caused by asbestos.

As for Soudas’ claim that it’s safe to use white asbestos in controlled conditions, a recent article on asbestos in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives noted: “Numerous epidemiologic studies, case reports, controlled animal experiments, and toxicological studies refute the assertion that chrysotile is safe. [...] These studies demonstrate that the so-called controlled use of asbestos is a fallacy.”

Science-ish contacted the Quebec-based IRSST (Robert-Sauvé Occupational Health and Safety Research Institute) to get their view. A spokesperson said, “All the studies we know of tend to show that all types of asbestos fibres have adverse effects on health.” They cite the findings of a scientific working group brought together by the International Agency for Research on Cancer in March 2009, which concluded there is a link between all forms of asbestos (including chrysotile) and an increased risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma. They added: “Although the potency differences with respect to lung cancer or mesothelioma for fibres of various types and dimensions are debated, the fundamental conclusion is that all forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans.”

In Canada, asbestos remains one of the leading causes of lung cancer, according to the Lung Cancer Association, up there with smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke and radon.

In 2006, the WHO said that if a global ban on asbestos were enacted, a decrease in the incidence of asbestos-related diseases would surface approximately 20 years later, adding that “the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop using all types of asbestos.” The International Labour Organization also passed a resolution to promote a worldwide asbestos ban.

Such bans require some international consensus, though, and Canada has twice blocked even the inclusion of chrysotile on a list of hazardous substances under the United Nations Rotterdam Convention, which regulates the global trade of certain hazardous chemicals and requires countries that import the substances to give “prior informed consent” that they are aware of the hazards associated with them. Canada is expected to do so again at the Rotterdam Convention in Geneva on Monday.

Julia Belluz is the associate editor at The Medical PostSeen something that’s Science-ish? Email her at julia.belluz@medicalpost.rogers.com.




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Can asbestos be used “safely”?

  1. It is really sad to see Canada continue to defend Asbestos for the sake of a few hundred jobs in one province. However our government (like all others) is a contradiction of terms, they spend literally 10′s of millions of dollars to discourage smoking, yet are dependent on the tax revenue tobacco generates. The same can be said for alcohol and gambling, so why would asbestos be any different.

    •  Very interesting thought – thanks for sharing, Flower Delivery Guy

  2.  We are behaving criminally in allowing the continued mining and export of this poison. There’s government interpreting something there own way, and then there’s outright lying like this.

  3. There is no way to use asbestos – http://www.asbestos.net/ – safely. Miners, no matter how protected, will come in contact with the mineral when harvesting it. Manufacturers and purchasers of asbestos products both have high risk levels or exposure. Hopefully Canada stops the export of this poison. Regards, TM

    • you have to inhale it, and that can be prevented the same way as work with other dust particles in mining, constrauction, just name it.

  4. I can’t understand why Canada continues to mine this stuff. Everyone knows that it is bad for human health. Is it purely because of a few jobs in one province? Is this product superior to others in certain parts of the world? The people importing it have to know it’s dangers, so is there a reason as to why they do.

    These are the questions I would like to see answered.

  5. The Canadian Govt. knows full well, that we as a nation, should NOT be exporting a product that is a known detriment to human life..(Asbestos and the tar sands)..

    As always, it boils down to “money”..and the jobs these industries provide and the taxes etc. that the govts.share.
    If it is not good enough for Canada..then it is not good for other countries…

    Do NOT make Canada responsible for the inevitable, declining health and/ or deaths of the citizens in developing countries, that purchase these proven, cancer inducing materials.

    Show the rest of the world, by example, that we DO care about human beings as a whole, ……
    not by dollar amount(s) or just when it suits us.

    • Apparently it only generates $90 million a year, so it can’t be about money…..this makes it all the more mind-boggling.  If $90 million a year is deemed worth this outrageous risk, then I am very, very afraid of this government.

  6. As a scientist myself I see part of the problem here lies with semantics and the details. The devil is always in the details. Indeed, one can successfully argue that just because asbestos is carcinogenic does not mean it is unsafe. Safety and toxicity are issues of degree, not kind, and so levels of exposure (dosage), frequency, types of contact (if any), form of substance, etc., all play a part. The entire Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) system is based on this concept, and asbestos has an MSDS entry.

    So, in one context, Soudas can be proven to be technically correct. But it’s sleight of hand. The real situation is what real applications does the asbestos end up in, what are the real conditions of exposure for miners and handlers, and what are the total risks overall. That is the context of this article, and it appears to be correct.

    As a word of warning though, ignoring the semantic game can be a problem. All Soudas has to do is prove the first usage for “safety”, in which he’s correct, and undermine the argument of the second case of “safety”, in which he’s incorrect. I think we need to call him out on this level, not a war of “he said”, “we said”. He can win that one.

    • Daniel, it doesn’t matter what Mr. Soudas claims in terms of handling the material.  The asbestos industry is entirely dependent on developing economies who don’t enforce their labour safety laws, lack strong unions to protect workers or a functional insurance industry.  

      It really is that triple play of law+unions+insurance that have put strict regulations on the handling of asbestos, or most hazardous materials.  The unions sue companies for bad conditions, the law ruled in favour of the unions, and the insurance industry don’t want the liability.  Despite this, workers in Canada are still suffering from asbestos exposure, never mind people abroad.  The asbestos industry should focus on exporting or selling asbestos based materials in a more benign fashion, not the raw bags of powder which will be inevitably be handled under poor working conditions, and by some the most marginalized people on the planet. It’s disgusting that Canada stands in the way of listing this material internationally as a hazardous substance. 

      • you must understand what happens when you inhale the dust – the tiny needles cut the lung tissue, which is then a wound exposed readily to other cancer causing agents – cigaret smoke,all industrial chemicals, car exhaust, just name it. And that happens with silica dust and other rock particles, and other sharp edges dust particles as well. Chrysotile in human body dissolves rather quickly, in contrast to other mineral particles.And its chemical composition does not contain toxic compunds – just magnesia and silica.

    • But there is no possible defense of blocking the warning to the end users.  That is the issue here.

  7. Oh Canada! We seem to live in fairyland one day and Hell the next. Are these now known as “intresting times”? When will they be over? 

  8. Is anyone aware of long term studies done on the cancer rate for the citizens of Asbesto or other asbesto mining towns?

    Peer reviewed studies only please :)

    • There must be a quite a few – just start digging.Both provincial and federal.Chrysotile work is essentially same risk as another form of dust environment.Any other industrial  respirable  fibres used as a substitute pose the very same risks as chrysotile.

  9. Harper has just unequivocally defined the nature of hypocrisy by blocking inclusion of this as a hazardous substance.  It’s not safe enough for Canadians to use, but there’s no way in hell we’ll label it as dangerous so long as there’s a customer with lower health and safety standards than ours.  Too bad Harper’s ethics appear to be negotiable to the bottom dollar.

    • my friend, do not blame Harper. It was a Liberal government who went to court on behalf of the Canada asbestos insdustry against the EPA and won.

  10. What is the difference between Canada exporting asbestos and Avganistan exporting opium or Columbia exporting cocain?
    The difference is that the peasants in Avganistan and Columbia have few other means of feeding their families, while Canada seems to be doing this out of spite for human suffering in the third world.

  11. yes, this is correct – law-union-insurance. And widespread use in the past without safe and controlled use - in the “industrial world”. Which does not mean, that safe usage is dangerous to your health, like some poison. Any other rock dust has similar effects, but had never been used in a similar way and volume.

  12. Thank you for the excellent piece you published on the misinformation
    about chrysotile asbestos that was given by Dimitri Soudas, PM Harper’s
    communications director.

    The
    Canadian government has been asked by health experts, including the Canadian Cancer Society, to remove misinformation about asbestos that is on
    the government’s website. It has refused to do
    so.

    Here’s misinformation that Canada’s Ministry of Natural Resources
    says on its website: “In recent years, asbestos has come under close
    scrutiny as a potential health hazard. Most of these health hazards come from
    the past use of amphibole asbestos and from inappropriate practices such as
    sprayed-on insulation. These practices have been discontinued in Canada since
    the 1970s. Worldwide, the main varieties of amphibole asbestos used commercially
    are crocidolite (blue asbestos) and amosite (brown asbestos). Chrysotile is in a
    different class of silicate minerals. Scientific evidence has demonstrated that
    it can be used safely at low levels of exposure … Regulations have been
    developed and are enforced rigorously to control exposure to chrysotile
    dust.”

    1) NO crocidolite or
    amosite asbestos is being mined and sold in the world today. Even the asbestos
    lobby group (the Chrysotile Institute) states that 100% of the asbestos trade
    globally today is composed of chrysotile asbestos. This has been the case for
    about twenty years. 2) All reputable scientific organisations (i.e. not
    funded by or working for the asbestos industry) agree that there is no safe
    exposure level for chrysotile asbestos. 3) About 95% of the asbestos
    mined in Canada is exported to countries in the global South, such as India,
    Indonesia, Bangaladesh etc, where it is simply untrue to state that there are
    regulations that are enforced rigorously to control exposure to chrysotile
    dust.

  13. Well!  Must be a mighty comfortable little world these Conservatives and their apologists live in … good or bad, naughty or nice.  Mr. Soudas is, assuredly, mouthing the inner thoughts and fond beliefs of the Harper/Baird clan, based not on good science but on strident faith that says believing something makes it so.
    Perhaps either, or both, of these two worthies will live, for at least 20 years, in a house with asbestos, and include raising their kids in the same house.  Enjoy the savings, gents!  then, should you contract a lung disease, blame it on … SOMEONE ELSE!  You know … the nasty lefties who fight for workers’ rights, or even the Liberals, or, well, hell, blame Santa Claus.

    This gang of Conservatives is the most unintelligent, unscientific, frankly dumb, gang Canada has ever saddled itself with as a government.  Belief over brains, stridency over thought;  but we voted for these clowns, now we got ‘em for as long as it takes for the rural king-makers to wise up that they made a mistake and we’re ALL paying for it.

  14. Send Harper to work in an asbestos mine.  No. Send his children.

  15. If asbestos is banned in Canada, why the government is finding excuses to sell it to other countries. To me it is a “crime agains humanity” since we know that it will cause death and willingly we are seeling it. the governmnet should be ashamed to keep supporting it for money and votes. it is disgusting. Harper goes to church on Sundays, prays and obvious he is a religous man but I guess his conscience doesn’t upset him at all. I think he has lots to pray for, specially for his souls, selling it to the higher bidder.

    • If there is demand, why not to produce and sell it instead to export Canadian jobs to China or Kazachstan? There is no ready and competitive material for use in asbestos cement products. That is the third world problem – it works well and it is affordable. If it is safe to remove asbestos products in older buildings in Canada, it must be safe to make new ones elsewhere.

      • If it is safe, why it is banned in Canada? ask the people that is suffering from lung cancer because of asbestos. if we can’t use it because it is a killer product and we do seems to do well with our construction without it, why Canada is selling it as a safe product to other countries? They could be exporting knowledge to do construction without asbestos. it is a crime, pure and simple. It is not safe to remove asbestos products in older buildings in Canada. I know, I live in one house that had asbestos. The people has to use extreme caution, protect themselves from head to toe and even then it can still pose a risk. Can you imagine how many canadians working in this mine in Montreal will develop lung cancer in the future? We will be paying for it, not the owner of the mine. Does this mining business has medical benefits to help the workers? I doubt because the owners of the mining doesn’t care as long as he or she makes money. Ask the ex-MP Chuck Sthral. He has lung cancer because he worked in asbestos mining when younger. He is speaking against it now.

        • Dear Kitanda – stop being judgmental and emotional, do your homework and learn te facts. For example Chuck Strahl – he got his problem from working unprotected , “macho approach”, with logging trucks break linings. And he does not favour outright ban, even today. And read the whole discussion above, particularly the combination in Canada and the US (EU as well) law-unions-insurance, and lawyers. This is why the removal in bulidings here is most often done (while completely unnecessary), and if so, under so cumbersome conditions. And it is good business removing it, risk free, the people make very good money. Otherwise, no one will touch asbestos or products containing it, because of risk being sued. You have to inhale the dust, period.  The mine is not even near of Montreal, as a matter of fact, quite far away from the city, and if the problem was so big as you suggest, there would have been a revolution long time ago. Do you believe the unions would have kept their mouth shut? Or the people work mining it? You must be very naive.

  16. Over 40 years ago I had a prospective employee visit me in my office near Montreal. He  was living in Thedford Mines and the bank he worked for would not transfer him. I asked him why he wanted to move, his answer “So I can live longer than my dad, who died of lung disease at 50. We have spent many millions of dollars  removing asbestos from buildings. So, if it’s so safe, let’s get Public Works to use it in future in buildings and renovation jobs used by Government employees and in particular locations housing those politicians who think the current product is safe.  East Block West Block, Center Block, 24 Sussex. I’ll bet Employee unions (PSAC,CUPE, etc)would pull their employees.   It’s all about votes folks and particularly votes in Quebec..

  17. I think every one except the Government of Canada now knows and understands that there is no safe asbestos. Continuing to mine the stuff and to sell it outside Canada’s borders is very close to criminal in my view and it is time that our Government stops this practice.

  18. Why didn’t you interview a representative from the industry? UN organizations have no credibility.

    • I have a better suggestion. Interview people dying from asbestos lung cancer, like ex-MP Chuck Sthral. He is speaking agains the industry now that he is not an MP anymore. If asbestos is a safe product, why it was banned in North American? Just go out there and start asking how many employees of the mine are expected to die from lung cancer? Is the mine paying extra benefits for the employee in case he develop cancer because of the asbestos? I doubt. It is all about votes and greed.

  19. Its great articles, maybe canada have a some consideration on asbestos.

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