OTTAWA – Recent changes to the way Health Canada describes health risks associated with asbestos exposure are not significant, the federal government said Thursday even as experts stressed the importance of the update.
Chrysotile asbestos, mined in Canada and exported until the last operation in Quebec went bankrupt, used to be referred to on the department’s website as being less dangerous than other forms of the mineral.
But that section was removed in the last month, as was a reference to the risks associated with inhaling “significant quantities” of asbestos fibres.
The website now states “asbestos, if inhaled, can cause cancer and other diseases.”
A spokesman for Health Minister Rona Ambrose said the changes were due to a review of all web content for an upcoming transition to one central government site.
“Health Canada made this change to ensure the information on asbestos remained clear and accurately reflected the health risks of asbestos,” Michael Bolkenius said an email.
Despite the government’s dismissals, the Canada Public Health Association applauded the changes as evidence of a “good public health decision.”
“The change in content on the Health Canada website is significant because of the language,” said executive director Ian Culbert.
“It is unfortunate if the government of Canada is stepping back from the importance of the changes that they’ve made.”
The World Health Organization maintains all types of asbestos can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, cancer of the larynx and ovary, and asbestosis.
NDP MP Pat Martin, who continues to be tested for asbestos-related illnesses due to his work in a mine, said Health Canada’s changes are “huge.”
“Really that’s what the industry has been dining out on for decades, that ‘yes asbestos kills but there’s something less deadly about Canadian asbestos,'” he said.
Martin said the government’s position on asbestos has been “morally and ethically reprehensible.”
“The asbestos policy has had the stink of political interference all over it,” Martin said. “There’s no question in my mind that Health Canada would have moved more quickly if the government of Canada wasn’t so implicit in the whole asbestos industry.”
During the 2011 federal election campaign, Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended the asbestos industry during a stop in Asbestos, Que., which was home at the time to the Jeffrey mine.
“Canada is one of a number of exporters of chrysotile and there are a number of countries in which it is legal who are buyers,” Harper said. “This government will not put Canadian industry in a position where it is discriminated against in a market where it is permitted.”
Asbestos was also a central industry for International Development Minister Christian Paradis’s riding which includes the town of Thetford Mines.
Paradis, who is not running for re-election, announced a $50 million economic diversification package for the region in 2012 after the industry collapsed.
Martin continued to stress the need for Canada to ban asbestos. More than 50 countries have already made this move.
“We can’t really pat ourselves on the back too much, it is not as though Canada finally grew a spine on this matter,” Martin said.