Thursday, August 11, 2011

Sorry world, we're doing Asbestos we can

Written for my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner, printed under the title "Exporting asbestos a hypocritical practice"

Those who thought majority government would mean the end of Stephen Harper’s iron grip on his caucus are surely disappointed by Canada’s disgusting behaviour on asbestos.

On June 24th, our government embarrassed us to the world by standing alone to block asbestos from being placed on the UN’s list of hazardous substances. If you thought asbestos was an issue of the past, with today’s relevance only being its costly removal (including from Parliament Hill), you were wrong. It’s actually mined in a few locations in Quebec (including the town of Asbestos), and our government not only allows this, they spend our tax money and harm our international reputation promoting for export something we’ve decided is too dangerous to use here in Canada.

Listing it as a hazard would not ban the mining, export or trade of our asbestos. It would just provide notice to other countries that it is dangerous, allowing them to ban its import (if they chose) without penalty. It would inform countries that there are no safety protocols sufficient to eliminate the catastrophic risk of working with this substance.

Our government’s facetious excuse, that other countries should be responsible for regulations to protect their citizens from our poison, is the height of hypocrisy. It even contradicts the views of their own Libertarian wing, who prefer that such things not be regulated, allowing users to make their own informed decisions. But here our government is telling other nations to make regulations, yet refusing to give them the information they would need to make an informed choice.

But that’s where we get to the issue of muzzling the caucus. Chuck Strahl, former Conservative cabinet minister, is slowly dying from asbestos-related lung cancer. He’s not alone; according to the Worker’s Compensation Board, nearly a third of workplace-related fatalities are due to asbestos exposure. He dared to speak out against Canada’s pro-asbestos policies while in government, but his strongest messages have come now that he is retired and beyond political penalty. His son, who succeeded him to the apparently hereditary Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon seat, has been silent on the issue, as befits a backbencher under Harper’s watchful eye.

Even more disturbing is the silence from neighbouring Simcoe-Grey’s MP Kellie Leitch, MD. Where is the good doctor’s ethical commitment to put health above all other concerns, including political advantage? Outside of Harper’s caucus, the medical profession is rather united on the best course to deal with asbestos: a total ban. This position is endorsed by the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Cancer Society, and the Canadian Public Health Association. Could Dr. Leitch not put aside crass politics to speak on behalf of public health? Or is that too much to expect in Harper’s Canada?

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

UPDATE: The Examiner received and published an excellent letter in response to this column. I believe it is worth addressing this issue again soon in another column. I will copy the letter below, as it will eventually fall off the Examiner site. I offer my condolences to the writer, and my respect for taking the time to tell her vital story.

MORE UPDATES: Two more letters in the Examiner on asbestos, and an article in the Globe & Mail echoing my key points.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Even the Barrie Examiner editorial stance now supports mine!

STILL UPDATING: At 5, this is now more letters than I've seen on any other topic in recent memory.

Debate over as far as asbestos is concerned

(RE: 'Exporting asbestos a hypocritical practice' in the Aug. 11 edition of the Examiner)

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins' column hit home.

On Sunday Aug. 8, my mother died of mesothelioma, a rare cancer that is caused from exposure to asbestos.

My sister and I were with her as she struggled through the day, breath by breath, each one a little more shallow than the previous. We knew what to expect as my father had died the same way only four years before. He worked with chrysotile asbestos, manufacturing insulation and pipes.

This is the same asbestos that is being exported to Third World countries where they, too, make insulation and pipes.

There is no cure, at present, for mesothelioma. There is no relief for mesothelioma. Although the latency period is anywhere from 10 to 50 years, once it shows up on a cat scan it is already too late.

Anyone diagnosed with mesothelioma will likely die in four to 18 months. My mother died in four months. She did not work with asbestos. It was brought home on my father's clothes, skin and hair.

Because it is an air-borne substance, she breathed it in when she shook off his clothes before washing them.

But once in the home, we all breathed it in, unknowingly. It is only now that we are starting to see those with para-occupational exposure getting sick and dying.

My four siblings and I are all at risk. The risk factor varies from child to child. It is determined on the number of years of exposure.

Everyone in the medical industry knows the risk of occupational and para-occupational exposure, including Simcoe- Grey MP Kellie Leitch.

The column was correct. Anyone more concerned about a political career over the health of the public is a hypocrite.

But perhaps Ms. Leitch misread the oath she should have taken as a doctor? Perhaps she should have signed the hypocritical oath instead of the Hippocratic Oath which states 'causing no harm...'.

Ms. Leitch must choose.

She must either stand up in Parliament and declare that because of her training as a doctor she cannot support the exportation of asbestos to India and other developing countries, or she must ask the medical association to revoke her license.

My mother fought courageously throughout her dying. She was selfless in the end, hoping that others would not have to suffer as she has.

Neither here, nor in India.

Heidi von Palleskre

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