COLUMN: Deadly asbestos export continues

The Canadian chrysotile asbestos industry and its supporter Stephen Harper are under the ethical microscope.

Any argument that maintains politically connected industries are avaricious and unethical has to consider the subjective, changing and often philosophical nature of ethical theories.

The absolutist theory holds right is right regardless of circumstance. The utilitarian theory holds an action is ethical if it is beneficial to the majority.  The consequentialist theory holds actions cannot be worse than their outcome.

The Canadian chrysotile asbestos industry and its supporter Stephen Harper are under the ethical microscope.

Perfectly contained, chrysotile poses no significant threat to human health, but in a friable (broken disturbed) state it is extremely hazardous.

Domestically, we mitigate health threats through an extensive worksite and public safety regulatory scheme.

In 1998, the United Nations initiated a convention in Rotterdam to protect developing nations from different forms of imported hazardous chemicals.

Exporting signatories of that convention agreed to get “Prior Informed Consent” from the importing country for hazardous chemicals listed under that convention.

Prior informed consent requires the importing country to work through a “Decision Guidance Document” designed to ensure it understands exactly what hazards they are importing. Even though asbestos is not on that list, 40 countries and all members of the European Union voluntarily banned its production.

Canada and Russia are the largest asbestos exporters and Harper refuses to ban it or have it included in the UN list requiring Informed Consent.

The government-funded “Chrysotile Institute”, which speaks for the asbestos industry, argues chrysotile is not a chemical and inclusion in the Rotterdam list would be “unjust” and “discriminatory”, and if handled responsibly it is “safe”.

Technically, they may be right, but their argument is silent to the fact that most Canadian chrysotile is destined for underdeveloped nations lacking safety regulations or enforcement.

In India, unskilled unprotected workers handle Canadian chrysotile in the production of roofing material and wallboard for slum housing. Workers breathe in chrysotile and carry it home on their clothing where they expose their families to it.

Trapped in a spiral of poverty, these people are largely ignorant of the risk they are in and their governments are not protecting them.

This has fueled a moral argument put forward by the World Federation of Public Health Associations, the International Labor Organization, the World Health Organization, the Canadian Cancer Association, the International Commission of Occupational Health, the International Trade Union Confederation and the Canadian Medical Association for the banning of all asbestos production.

In 1934, Canadian Prime Minister R.B. Bennett betrayed his corporate benefactors when he called them “selfish men whose mounting bankrolls loom larger than your happiness, corporations without souls and virtue”.

Considering Bennett’s inhumane policies and longstanding inaction related to corporate exploitation of Canadian workers during the Great Depression, we have to consider whether it was outright hypocrisy or ethical flexibility that he tapped into in his effort to secure a re-election.

The Depression was a 10-year lesson on exploitive corporate and insensitive political ethics.

It appears little has changed when considered in the context of a collective conscience at peace with our government and corporations selling weapons to foreign powers to kill human beings, taxing and selling addictive cancer causing tobacco and countenancing the export of mesothelioma for money.


Retired Nanaimo resident Ron Heusen writes every second week. He can be reached through the News Bulletin at editor@nanaimo

Nanaimo News Bulletin

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