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Asbestos is made up of tiny fibres that can be inhaled, penetrating the lungs. Because they are mineral-based, they can't be broken down by the body's natural defences, so they cause inflammation. The fibres also remain in the lining around the lungs, and over time - often 20 to 30 years or more - may cause mesothelioma or other diseases.
Because asbestos is a known carcinogen, it has been banned by more than 50 countries, including all members of the European Union. They appear to be getting along fine without it, probably because there are safe alternatives for construction, fire-proofing, and other asbestos functions. Canada and the U.S. have not banned it but don't use it much anymore. Although Canada doesn't have a domestic market for asbestos, we actively support the industry and promote exports to other countries, especially India. In fact, Canada is one of only a few countries that still exports asbestos. And despite these times of government cutbacks, the Quebec government has even stepped in to keep the industry alive by agreeing to lend the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos, Quebec, $58-million to restart and expand.
The Jeffery operation is one of the two last asbestos mines in Canada, both of which were shut down last year. Proponents also hope to restart the other, Lac d'amiante du Canada in nearby Thetford Mines. Quebec has one of the highest rates of mesothelioma in the world. Meanwhile, the Quebec and federal governments had been funding the Chrysotile Institute, an asbestos industry lobby group, to the tune of a quarter million dollars or more a year. Federal funding was axed last year and the institute closed earlier this year. The federal government has also blocked international efforts to have asbestos listed as hazardous - against advice from Health Canada - by repeatedly voting to keep it off the UN Rotterdam Convention, a treaty listing hazardous substances and requiring exporting countries to inform importers of bans, dangers, and safe-handling methods.
Interestingly, the Jeffrey Mine's owner had asked for a loan guarantee, but the government offered a direct loan. Maybe the private sector didn't see much future in trading a known carcinogen that countries around the world are moving to ban. It's particularly disappointing to see the Quebec government, which otherwise has a pretty good environmental track record, support a project with known negative environmental and health risks. It also says a lot about the absurdity of an economic system in which creating a few jobs and boosting wealth is a higher priority than preventing cancer, protecting health, and having a clean environment. The Jeffery mine re-opening is expected to create just over 400 direct jobs, each paying about $16 an hour.