The Asbestos Industry: Valuing Profit over Safety by Eric Stevenson

by Eric Stevenson
Guest Writer
Dandelion Salad
February 24, 2011

Asbestos fibres - a single fibre is believed t...

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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.

3 thoughts on “The Asbestos Industry: Valuing Profit over Safety by Eric Stevenson

  1. Pingback: Profit Pathology and Disposable Planet by Michael Parenti « Dandelion Salad

  2. I worked in Naval shipyard for 31 years, starting in the late 1970’s. My trade was as a marine mechanic, and we did a lot of in-line valve repair. Closely related trades were pipefitters and pipe laggers, the latter working directly with pipe insulation and the lagging mud that held the pieces together. I was directly exposed to to asbestos in the air inside machinery spaces. It was only in the 1980’s that gradually more stringent safety regulations were brought into the workplace, and people began to receive annual classes on asbestos and how to deal with it. Mind you, this was in a US Government repair facility, and the regulations were state-of-the-art, and pretty well enforced. Even after the obvious dust generating work became contained, my trade still utilized asbestos impregnated valve packing for high temperature steam lines. Again, as awareness increased, the materials were phased out, and by the time I retired, it would be considered crazy to handle these materials without proper procedures. The point is, I was diagnosed with pleural thickening, and of course during the ’80’s and ’90’s, I smoked cigarettes. Well, so far I’m OK, and get an annual chest x-ray and don’t smoke, but thousands or shipyard, automotive, electrical, and construction workers were exposed to large amounts of asbestos, and coming down with an ailment is a crapshoot. Some of us will and some of us won’t. To mine this stuff, transport it overseas, and allow untrained workers to use it is simply criminal. It shows that murder and mayhem will be perpetrated in the name of profit. Not only are workers exposed, but this stuff, seen under a microscope,is naturally formed like tiny fish hooks, so the spouses and children in the homes of the workers get second-hand exposure from the work clothes. It’s bad stuff, and we in the West know about it, but what about some workers in Asia? Do you think they will be schooled? I doubt it. Stop killing the working class and their families for profit.

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