by Eric Stevenson
February 24, 2011
With fewer than 200 workers, most of them part time, the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos, Quebec, is barely operational anymore. However, if a group of international investors called Balcorp gets its way, the mine could soon be revived, digging many tons of asbestos out of the ground and exporting the hazardous mineral to developing Asian countries. The group plans to sell primarily to India, but also to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, and the Philippines.
The Canadian government is well aware of how dangerous asbestos is – if it was not, would it be spending millions of dollars to painstakingly remove the substance from classrooms and federal buildings all across the country? Medical experts are united in their condemnation of asbestos, which can cause serious health problems like lung scarring, asbestosis, and mesothelioma, a deadly cancer of the lining of the lungs. Mesothelioma symptoms can mimic those of other, less serious lung diseases, often delaying diagnosis until the cancer is in its later, untreatable stages.
Why would Balcorp want to expose Canadian miners and Asian workers to this deadly material? Because in developing countries where occupational safety laws are still lax, there is still a large, profitable market for it. Asbestos can be combined with cement, plastics, or other materials to form drywall, roofing shingles, floor and ceiling tiles, insulation, pipe covering, paints, and many more building materials. The asbestos does make the material fireproof, but at a great cost to public health. Since it is so difficult to diagnose, life expectancy is very poor, with the average patient living only 9 to 12 months after diagnosis. The prognosis is even worse in developing countries with far fewer medical resources.
But Balcorp and the rest of the asbestos industry are not the first or only ones to put profit ahead of worker and consumer safety. In fact, the entire mining industry has a history of subjecting its workers to deadly on-the-job conditions. Even now that technology for detecting structural weaknesses and gas leaks is far more sophisticated than the canary in the coal mine, mining is still one of the most dangerous jobs there is. Explosions and cave-ins at mines in Chile, New Zealand, and West Virginia were all in the news in 2010. While the Chilean miners were rescued, those in the Pike River Mine in New Zealand and the Upper Branch Big Mine in West Virginia were not as lucky.
Back in Canada, Balcorp insists that it will provide its workers with the very latest in protective equipment, but still plans to send them into a closed environment full of extremely hazardous material on a daily basis. And no matter how well-protected the miners are, the workers in Asia will almost certainly have none of this equipment at their disposal. Asbestos fibers become dangerous when they are released into the air, which happens when the materials that contain it are sawed, grinded, or otherwise disturbed – as inevitably happens when construction teams are installing them. Even small amounts of asbestos fibers have been shown to cause symptoms of mesothelioma.
Strangely, the miners and former miners in Quebec refuse to blame the mine for any illnesses it may have caused. In fact, they welcome the prospect of more jobs breathing new life into the town. However, their trust in corporations like Balcorp is almost certainly misplaced, since the companies’ ultimate goal is not worker or even consumer safety, but profit.