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Asbestos is the common name for a group of naturally occurring, fibrous minerals with the ability to be separated into long, thin fibres. Because these fibres are strong, durable, heat resistant and inexpensive, asbestos has been widely used in building materials and many industries.

Exposure to asbestos is associated with health risks, especially when asbestos fibres are present in the air people breathe.

Types of Asbestos

There are two general classes of asbestos: amphibole and serpentine.

Amphibole Asbestos

The amphibole class contains five different minerals: amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, anthophyllite, and actinolite. Amphibole asbestos is identified by its thin, needle-like strands and its higher concentration of iron than serpentine asbestos. Amphibole’s physical and chemical properties make it highly resistant to acids and extreme heat. Because of its insulating properties, amphibole asbestos was commonly used in wide range of industrial products, including furnaces, heating systems, insulating boards, and ceiling tiles. However, airborne amphibole particles have been linked to several lung diseases, including terminal forms of lung cancer. Most Western countries banned the use of all types of amphibole asbestos in the mid-1980s.

Serpentine (Chrysotile) Asbestos

The serpentine class of asbestos contains only one type of mineral: chrysotile or white asbestos. Chrysotile asbestos is also resistant to high temperatures but unlike the thin and brittle fibers of amphibole, chrysotile fibers are soft, curly and flexible. Alone, chrysotile fibres cannot be seen by the naked eye. When disturbed, chrysotile has the ability to partition into tiny fibres which can remain suspended in the air and possibly enter our body if we accidentally inhale them.

Chrysotile asbestos has commonly been used to produce a wide range of industrial and consumer products, including insulating fabrics and rope. Amphibole asbestos is found mainly in South Africa and Australia while chrysotile deposits have been discovered around the world. Although it was also linked to respiratory diseases – including cancer – chrysotile asbestos was long considered safer than amphibole asbestos.

Asbestos Use Today

Of the asbestos still found in North America, between 90-99% is chrysotile.

Despite restrictions on the use of asbestos in Canada, Canadian mines still produce about 10% of the world’s chrysotile. More than 95% is exported, mostly to developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Asbestos use is banned in most developed nations. France banned the import and sale of asbestos in 1996 and the UK followed suit in 1999. In 1999, the European Union agreed to ban the sale and use of products containing asbestos by 2005.

Industrial Use in Canada

Asbestos has been widely used for its insulating and fire-resistant properties since the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many industrial and consumer items produced in the first half of the twentieth century contained asbestos: fireproof clothing, stage curtains, gaskets, brake pads, brake shoes, clutch discs, and a wide range of building materials—from floor and ceiling tiles to caulking and countertops. The majority of asbestos still in North America is found as fire-resistant insulation in buildings built before 1979.

Most Canadians who have contracted asbestos-related illnesses came into contact with asbestos in their workplaces—most often as trades-people or miners. Occupations that have been, and continue to be, at risk of exposure to asbestos include: asbestos miners, automotive mechanics, shipyard workers, textile workers, building engineers, railroad workers, demolition crews, and a wide range of construction and manufacturing workers.

Some Canadian victims were exposed to asbestos during their naval service in the Second World War. The pipes and interior hulls of many WWII ships were often insulated with sprayed-on asbestos—one of the most dangerous and unstable forms of asbestos application. Because of the often lengthy delay between exposure and illness, many veterans are only now discovering the ultimate cost of their wartime service. Thousands of ex-servicemen are potentially at risk, prompting Veterans’ Affairs to investigate the possibility of compensation packages for veterans who have fallen ill.

Canada’s federal government has promoted a controlled-use approach to asbestos manufacturing and use in Canada since 1979. This means that regulations have been put in place to limit the possibility of dangerous levels of asbestos exposure. However, many doctors and medical scientists argue that there is no safe level of exposure, and that asbestos should be banned outright in Canada (as it is in the European Union).

Industrial Use Other

About 1,000 tons of asbestos was used in the construction of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. Images of New York in the days following September 11, 2001 often showed large, billowing dust clouds. A dramatic recent increase in cancer rates among rescue and construction personnel who worked at Ground Zero has provoked fears that the dust clouds contained many toxic chemicals, including asbestos. As many as 70,000 people worked at Ground Zero in the months following the collapse of the towers. (moved out of Industrial use in Canada section)

Canadian Mining and Export of Asbestos

Canada has a long history of asbestos mining. The world’s first asbestos mine was established in southeastern Quebec in the mid-1870s. The Jeffrey Mine, the largest and earliest in the area, is currently one of the biggest open-pit asbestos mines in the world—it covers nearly six square kilometers (6 km2). Although asbestos mining in Canada is now concentrated solely in Quebec, it was mined across the country as late as 1989. In addition to Quebec, asbestos mines were located in Newfoundland, the Yukon, and British Columbia. BC’s last asbestos mine, the Cassiar Mine, closed in 1989. The town of Thetford Mines, in south-central Quebec, was recently voted one of the top ten least desirable places to live or visit because of its proximity to the last active open-pit mine in Canada.

The Mining Continues

Despite the health risks related to asbestos mining and production, and the overall decline in asbestos mining in Canada, as recently as April 2010 mine workers and owners in the town of Asbestos (Quebec) were working to reopenunderground sections of the Jeffrey Mine. Other groups, such as the Chrysotile Institute, a non-profit group funded by the Canadian federal government, the government of Quebec, and the asbestos industry, continue to lobby against bans on asbestos mining, production, and export.

The mining and export of asbestos is a contentious political issue in Canada. Many critics have suggested that Canada’s federal government only tolerates asbestos mining in Quebec in order to avoid upsetting Quebec’s provincial government and alienating miners. International bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) have repeatedly criticized Canada for strictly regulating the sale and use of asbestos in Canada while simultaneously exporting large quantities of asbestos to developing nations that have no regulations in place and often lack the resources to provide medical support for people who become sick after exposure to asbestos.

Asbestos Exports

India is one of the biggest importers of Canadian chrysotile asbestos. In February 2010, activists from the Ban Asbestos Network called for an end to asbestos imports to India. They also demanded Canada support the push to designate chrysotile asbestos a hazardous product under the guidelines of the Rotterdam Convention. Despite the voice of many Canadian activists in support of listing chrysotile as a hazardous chemical and in opposition of the export of Canadian asbestos to developing nations, Canada has been one of the most vocal opponents to listing chrysotile as a hazardous substance.

In January 2010, a group of scientists, doctors, and professors from across the country, including Victoria-based asbestos expert Kathleen Ruff, forwarded a strongly-worded letter to Quebec Premier Jean Charest, calling on the Premier to explain his February 6, 2010 claim that Quebec will not change its position on the mining and export of asbestos. This letter is the latest in a long tradition of advocacy against Canadian mining, production, and export of asbestos.

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