Quebec PM Jean Charest, arriving in India today, is being pressed by environmental activists to stop mining and exporting asbestos.
Occupational Health and Safety Centre of Bombay and the Occupational Health and Safety Association of Ahmedabad are believed to have requested a meeting with him, but it is not clear whether he has agreed to meet them. Protest demos are on the cards during his economic mission.
Over 100 scientists from 28 countries have already appealed to Mr. Charest to acknowledge the dangers of asbestos and stop exporting it to developing countries.
They said in their joint letter, "...we appeal to you to respect the overwhelmingly consistent body of scientific evidence and the considered judgment of the World Health Organization (WHO) that all forms of asbestos have been shown to be deadly and that safe use of any form of asbestos has proven impossible anywhere in the world."
Quebec's own public health experts, prominent health experts across Canada, as well as the Canadian Medical Association, have all called for an end to use and export of asbestos, the scientists point out.
The province is experiencing an appalling epidemic of asbestos-related disease. Official data shows 134 new cases of mesothelioma reported in Quebec.
Exposure to asbestos is the single biggest cause of worker death. Figures for 2009 from the Quebec Workers' Compensation Board show 60% of occupational deaths were caused by asbestos.
"This is a public health calamity and one that would not have happened if the industry's denial of the hazards of asbestos had not been believed," the letter says and urges, "We call on you not to export this same public health tragedy to developing countries, where surely there is more than enough injustice and suffering already."
In 2007, facing high numbers of cases of asbestosis, the government's health authorities set up a special program, using a mobile x-ray clinic to travel around the province and give chest x-rays to construction workers, in an endeavour to identify and aid workers with signs of asbestosis.
Virtually all Quebec's asbestos is exported to developing countries, where protections are few and awareness of the hazards of asbestos almost non-existent.Quebec itself does not use chrysotile asbestos because of strong public opposition.
According to a spokesperson for Quebec's Occupational Health & Safety Commission (CSST), the government of Quebec has adopted a "zero tolerance" policy for exposure to asbestos. "We applaud your government for seeking thus to protect Quebec workers from asbestos harm. We call on you to show equal concern for the lives of workers in the developing world," the scientists said.
Accusing the Quebec government of double standards, the experts said, "We find it shocking that the exposure level you endorse for people overseas is a ten times higher than the level permitted by all of the other provinces in Canada, by the U.S., by the European Union and by other Western industrialized countries. It is one hundred times higher than the exposure level permitted in several countries, such as Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands."
Referring to instances of intimidation of public health experts by the asbestos industry, the scientists appealed to Mr. Charest not to succumb to the lobby but protect the interests of the people at large.
1997, Canada exported 430,000 tonnes of asbestos - more than 96% of production - most of it to the developing world. Canada is the world's second-largest exporter of asbestos after Russia.
Critics of Canada's asbestos exports say the country is exporting death to protect the profits of a handful of companies and the jobs of 1,600 miners.
"What's the difference between land mines and asbestos?" asks Dr. Barry Castleman, author of a respected book on the danger of asbestos. "A key difference, of course, is that Canada doesn't export land mines."
All of the asbestos mines in Canada are in Quebec, a predominantly French-speaking province with a separatist government.
Federal and provincial politicians are pushing asbestos exports to prove that they are successful at developing overseas markets, and are protective of Quebec workers. Critics of asbestos exports say the industry would probably be allowed to die if it had been centred in any other part of the country.
"Personally, I believe this is all about Quebec politics," says Canadian Auto Workers Health and Safety director Cathy Walker. "The Canadian and Quebec governments are competing with one another to show just how prepared they all are to protect Quebec jobs."
The real costs will be borne by the developing world, she says.
Walker just returned from India, where she saw unprotected workers slashing open bags of asbestos fibres. In places where the asbestos was being mixed into cement, clouds of the carcinogenic fibres swirled around workers.
In 2008, Canada exported 175,000 tonnes of chrysotile - almost all of it to developing nations like India, Bangladesh and Indonesia. Industry critics have declared that safety precautions are rarely enforced in those countries.
But Charest's office said Thursday the premier has encouraged countries that use chrysotile asbestos, or white asbestos, to ratify a 23-year-old convention by the International Labour Organization concerning the safe use of chrysotile asbestos.
"We promote safe usage and there are plenty of mechanisms within which the industry works," said Hugo D'Amours, a spokesman for the premier.
"But it's clear that those who buy asbestos have a responsibility."
In Britain, the Cancer Research Campaign said in January that its study into the European asbestos-linked cancer epidemic should sound alarm bells everywhere, "particularly in the developing world where uncontrolled asbestos is still very common," said CRC director Gordon McVie.
Philip Landrigan, of New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine - the centre that first linked cancer to asbestos in the 1960s - says the asbestos lobby's claim that the fibre is safe is "absolutely untrue."
"Asbestos remains an important cause of human illness," says Landrigan. "All forms of asbestos are carcinogenic, and that includes Canadian chrysotile."