On June 29, Quebec Premier Jean Charest announced that his Quebec Liberal Party-led government will give a $58 million loan to revive one of the world’s oldest and largest chrysotile (white) asbestos mines: the Jeffrey Asbestos Mine. This revival plan has shocked the West because over the years it has seen a spurt in asbestos-related cancer cases and over 100 asbestos companies have gone bankrupt after paying medical liabilities.
The decision to revive Jeffrey Asbestos Mine will have a devastating effect on India, its main customer. In fact, the revival plan is partly financed ($25 million) by a consortium of international investors led by Canadian-Indian Baljit Singh Chadha. His company, Balcorp Ltd, is the sales agent for the Jeffrey mine in India. Chadha had also been one of the main fund-raisers of the Liberal Party. At one such fund-raising event, which was held at Chadha’s home in 2009, he raised $27,000,00.
For those who don’t know about the impact of asbestos on humans, here is a lowdown: a 2010 World Health Organisation report revealed that in 2004 asbestos-related lung cancer from occupational exposure resulted in 107,000 deaths and 1,523,000 DALYS, which is the overall disease burden, expressed as the number of years lost due to ill-health, disability or early death. It further attributed several thousand deaths to other asbestos-related diseases, as well as to non-occupational exposure to asbestos.
In the US, asbestos-related diseases cause about 10,000 deaths every year. Epidemiologists predict that between 1995 and 2029, the asbestos-related death toll in Western Europe could exceed 500,000. Quebec, the heartland of Canada’s asbestos production, is facing an epidemic of asbestos-related diseases: 60% of occupational deaths in 2009 were due to asbestos.
India uses over 400,000 metric tonnes of asbestos annually, mostly in the construction industry. But, unfortunately, there is no comprehensive mortality data and compensation records to show the scale of health devastation due to asbestos exposure. This lack of data is evident from the fact that despite over 50 years of use and a consumption of over 7 million tonnes of asbestos in the last few decades, the Employees State Insurance Corporation of India shows only 51 cases of compensation to workers suffering from asbestosis, a lung disease caused by asbestos exposure. Only 222 cases of mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer caused by asbestos in the protective lining of inner organs, has been registered at the Indian Cancer Registry, Gujarat Cancer and Research Institute and Tata Memorial Trust combined.
Hiding behind the lack of data, Indian asbestos companies and countries like Canada continue to trade in a known killer. The Jeffrey Mine was once owned by Johns Mansville Corporation that went bankrupt in 1982, paying liabilities to asbestos victims.
The reopening of the mine will mean an export of over 5 million tonnes of chrysotile (white) asbestos to developing countries over the next quarter of a century. With most of the developed world, including Canada, banning or restricting use of all forms of asbestos, Asian countries have been the target for Canadian asbestos in recent years.
The Quebec and Ottawa governments are both under attack in Canada. Charest is being investigated over corruption charges. The unpopularity of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is also growing. Both men need a distraction. The revival of the mine and the new jobs it will bring to the struggling mining regions could well be what they are looking for.
Madhumita Dutta is a Chennai-based activist and member of Occupational and Environmental Health Network of India
The views expressed by the author are personal