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Exporting Asbestos Should be Illegal

By Devra Lee Davis

Last month, India banned smoking indoors, joining Uruguay, France, Italy, Ireland, Sweden, and a growing number of industrial and developing nations. The reasons why it’s taken so long for the world to act to control this deadly habit reveal a deadly rulebook.

When it was first launched in 1971, the official war on cancer was strangely silent on the need to control tobacco, or other agents that were then known to cause the disease. This was not an accident. The addiction to many of these products was not just physical but financial.  Major funding for the American Cancer Society(ACS), the American Medical Association(AMA)—came from those who profited from tobacco advertising and sales.

In the 1950s, the AMA received $10 million dollars to devise a safe cigarette, a program on which the U.S. government spent some $35 million through the 1970s. The first director of the American Cancer Society, Clarence Cook Little, became scientific director of the Tobacco Industry Research Council in 1954, and provided millions of funding to some of the world’s top scientists well into the 1980s .  These well-funded prestigious groups provided quick and authoritative challenges to any report on tobacco hazards.  The AMA ran ads featuring smoking physicians touting health benefits of tobacco. In the 1950s, the ACS board ordered its staff scientists not to disclose their own research on tobacco hazards.

In 1957, Reader’s Digest, then America’s major monthly magazine, reported that cigarettes contained high amounts of tars and nicotine. Industry came up with a simple solution:  new and improved filters would produce smoother smokes.  A carefully concocted strategy rolled out the first Kent filtered cigarettes in 1953.  With their  lowered nicotine and tar content officially tested by the AMA, the first filtered smokes worked too well.  So what was in these too efficient filters?  Declassified government reports described a very special compound—asbestos—that could remove radioactive and other fine particles.

From 1952 to 1956 a little more than half a billion packs of Kent brand asbestos-filtered cigarettes were sold. Of course, asbestos was not solely used in cigarettes.  Within short order asbestos became widely employed because of its ability to fireproof hardened materials, whether roof sheets, floor tiles, furnaces and wiring, or cement building blocks. Once invisible particles of asbestos are deeply inhaled into the lung, they can leave telltale scars that can give rise forty years later to lung cancer or to mesothlioma, a slowly suffocating cancer. When reports surfaced that asbestos was killing workers in the 1930s, medical experts tapped by industry provided soothing, scientific assurance that these were wrong.

Next week in Rome, at the meeting of the more than one hundred nations that have signed the Rotterdam Convention on Toxic Hazards, decades of delay in controlling asbestos can come to an end. Canada and the U.S.can join the European Union and the rest of the industrial world and agree to target chrysotile asbestos as a toxic hazard. Canada’s reason for resisting the listing is simple—money. Like Russia, Kazakhstan, and Brazil, Canada is a major exporter of asbestos.

With more than $50 million of government funding the Chrysotile Institute, formerly called, the Asbestos Institute, promotes asbestos at Canadian embassies in more than sixty developing countries. They claim that chrysotile asbestos is safe—a position that differs from that of the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Cancer Society, the World Bank, the World Health Organization, the American Public Health Association and the Collegium Ramazzini.

The Asbestos/Chrysotile Institute has been fabulously successful. In a number of African nations and in India, imports of Canadian asbestos have tripled in less than a decade, as have imports of asbestos sheet cement into the U.S. from Mexico this century. Investigative photos of Indian asbestos factories in the Toronto Globe and Mail revealed working conditions reminiscent of those Dickens depicted.  An epidemic of asbestos-related illness continues to unfold in Quebec—the province where Canadian asbestos is mined and where women–few of whom have worked in mines-have the highest rates of asbestos-related lung disease in the world.

Although asbestos is not widely consumed in Canada at all today where safer substitutes are employed, the government has been shamelessly promoting asbestos to developing nations. While boasting that its green Olympics were free of asbestos, China has quadrupled mining of asbestos from Tibet which is widely used throughout the countryside.

Wherever it’s been produced, asbestos does not stay in factories.  This year, Leigh Carlisle, a 26 year old British woman who never worked with asbestos in her short life, died of mesothelioma. Her only known exposure occurred as a girl walking past a asbestos-using worksite as she made her way to school. She is not alone. One in three cases of this deadly disease today occur in people with no known workplace history of asbestos exposure.

Exporting asbestos to India is immoral, but it also needs to be made illegal. Nations with Premiers and Presidents who have won the Nobel Peace Prize can do the right thing and stop perpetuating the deadly legacy of this dangerous dust.