Maple Leaf Killers: Spectre editor speaks on Canada's deadly export

Spectre editor Steve McGiffen addressed a meeting of students, staff and guests of the American Graduate School of International Relations and Diplomacy in Paris on Wednesday 28th  April. His subject was Canada's exports of asbestos, which he described as "genocidal".

Referring to the title of his talk, McGiffen said that "the maple leaf killers keep exporting the stuff, as well as spreading lies about 'safe use', almost a century after the potentially deadly effects of even the briefest exposure to asbestos dust were proven."

Now that the EU had introduced a comprehensive ban, Canada has switched its exports to developing countries where, through a variety of factors, governments allow its use. "Weak trade unions, corruption and sheer desperation mean that building with asbestos continues in places like Thailand and India," McGiffen told the meeting. "Asbestos is cheap and, if it didn't kill you, it would be an ideal building material for developing countries. Canada also has the means at its disposal to persuade poor countries to continue their exports. But politicians everywhere are susceptible to turning a blind eye to long-term threats in favour of short-term gains, and asbestos rarely kills in the kind of time scale that concerns them."

Within the European Union, the use of this deadly material is at last banned, yet much remains to be done, he said. "Asbestos is everywhere: in public buildings, office blocks, homes, roads and vehicles. Its processing and use has already cost tens of thousands of people’s lives, but in the years to come, hundreds of thousands more will be added to this toll. 100,000 workers a year die worldwide as a result of exposure, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. Many deaths from asbestos are not counted, either through deliberate denial or because of a genuine confusion of factors. There are diseases which only asbestos can cause, but lung cancer, for instance, isn't one of them. If you've smoked much of your life and worked with asbestos, who's to say which is to blame?"

Tobacco companies are rightly berated for their activities, but at least people who smoke know well that they are running a risk. In much of the world, the danger of asbestos is concealed from workers. Even when they find out, poverty and the absence of alternative livelihoods can mean that they are forced to continue to work with it.  Also, not everyone who dies has ever worked with the stuff. Environmental exposure is a growing problem, especially for those living near processing plants or mines.

"It was known by 1921 that exposure to asbestos dust was life-threatening," McGiffen continued. "Corporate power ensured that it took three-quarters of a century before most developed countries had instituted a ban.  Lobbying, cartelisation and the systematic distortion of medical findings enabled the small group of firms which dominated the industry to continue to make huge profits at the expense of their employees, their customers, and the environment in general. 

"In industrialised countries asbestos is the leading cause of work-related sickness and, after tobacco, the deadliest carcinogen in the environment. By 2029 it is estimated that in western Europe alone over 250,000 men will have died from mesothelioma – of which asbestos is the only known cause - while at least as many again will succumb to asbestos-related lung cancer.  Figures for the rest of the world are harder to calculate, but where no ban has been instituted things will be even worse.

"Although far fewer women worked with asbestos, many will die from the results of laundering the work clothes of male family members, or from exposure to asbestos dust in the vicinity of factories and mines. 

"During the last decade the growing movement in many countries in support of the victims of asbestos-related diseases has had notable successes. Almost yearly, more countries are forbidding its use, while actions for damages increase.  Often, however, it is difficult to establish the culpability of an individual firm. Asbestos-related diseases can take thirty years or more to appear, by which time most workers will have long moved on.

"What is needed now is a global agreement to ensure that all victims of asbestos receive just compensation. In addition, every country should face up to the task of compiling a complete inventory of asbestos-contaminated buildings and land, and of  then decontaminating them or otherwise rendering them safe.  While the state should take the lead in this, it is the corporations responsible who should be forced to pay. 

"The movement to have asbestos banned is growing and has now reached Canada. Yet the Canadian government gives C$250,000 a year to the Chrysotile Institute, whose function is to spread lies about 'safe use'. At the same time, they've just spent an enormous sum on getting rid of the stuff from their own federal parliament in Ottawa! The cynicism of such people beggars belief."

Find out more about asbestos and the global struggle against its use at the IBAS website