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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Mesothelioma risk buried by Ottawa government, scientist alleges

Mesothelioma risk buried by Ottawa government, scientist alleges
Trevor Ogden is the British scientist who headed the Health Canada panel that studied the risk of mesothelioma and other cancers from Canadian chrysotile asbestos. Dr. Ogden says that the Ottawa government tried to suppress the panel’s report because it was a threat to the Canadian province’s asbestos industry. Canadian asbestos is exported to countries in the developing world, and the Ottawa government has spent almost $20 million in the last 25 years promoting its asbestos exports.

The expert panel was convened in late 2007, and the report was completed in March 2008. But it took more than a year for the report to become available—and even then, only through public information requests made by the media.

Health Canada has still not published the report on its website, as it generally does for scientific studies that are funded by the organization. It says that the delay has been necessary to fully review the report and discuss the findings with “other federal and provincial partners.”

The report confirms that chrysotile asbestos causes cancer—as has been generally accepted by health organizations around the globe. The report also discussed the frequently contamination of chrysotile asbestos with tremolite fibers, the same type of asbestos that contaminated the vermiculite ore in Libby, Montana and caused hundred of deaths there.

A British expert who oversaw a report on the dangers of the chrysotile variety of asbestos says he believes Ottawa tried to suppress his work to protect the Quebec industry that mines the cancer-causing mineral.

"I can only speculate, and my speculation is that there were interests in continuing Canadian production of chrysotile and they saw the report as a threat," Trevor Ogden, editor-in-chief of the Annals of Occupational Hygiene and a former top adviser to the British government on asbestos hazards, said in an interview.
Dr. Ogden headed an expert panel that Health Canada assembled in late 2007 to study the cancer risk of chrysotile. The report has been ready since March, 2008, but has been available only since last week after Access to Information Act requests from the media, including The Globe and Mail.

Health Canada isn't publishing the report on its website, the usual practice for scientific studies that it funds, but says anyone who asks for a copy will be given one.

Although the link between asbestos and cancer is accepted internationally, the saga of the report indicates just how sensitive the issue is within the federal government.

Canada and other developed countries use little asbestos, and many nations ban it because of the health and liability risk. Most of Quebec's production is exported to the developing world for use as an inexpensive additive to strengthen cement building products.

Ottawa has spent nearly $20-million since 1984 promoting the mineral abroad.

Health Canada said it delayed releasing the report because of the need to study it. "Health Canada took the time necessary to carefully review the findings of the report, and to consult with other federal and provincial partners," it said in a statement to The Globe.

The introduction to the report, written by Dr. Ogden, concludes that chrysotile shows "a strong relationship of exposure with lung cancer, but a much less certain relationship with mesothelioma," a cancer in the lining of the chest wall.

The report also concludes that chrysotile generally contains trace amounts of a more harmful variety of asbestos known as tremolite.

As well, the panel noted but couldn't explain why the results of two studies suggest that it is far more of a health hazard for people to work with asbestos than to mine it.

The studies showed that lung cancer risk in South Carolina textile workers who use asbestos was about 70 times greater than that of Quebec's miners, according to the report. Asbestos causes cancer when its fibres are inhaled.

In an interview, Leslie Stayner, an epidemiology professor at the University of Illinois who was on Health Canada's asbestos panel, said researchers do not know why the textile workers were at greater risk. He said one theory is that the longer asbestos fibres used to make textiles are more deadly.

Dr. Stayner says he would be reluctant to work with Health Canada again because he feels the government "violated" an understanding that the work would be published in a timely fashion on a government website.

Health Canada said in its statement that it "sought the advice of leading international scientists on the risks posed by chrysotile asbestos so that it could better understand the scientific debate. No other country has encouraged such a debate amongst scientists with widely varying opinions."

Health Canada isn't alone in having trouble handling the issue of asbestos.

Late last month, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff responded to a questioner at a town hall in Victoria about Canada's asbestos exports by saying the sales "of this dangerous product overseas has got to stop."

The remarks were recorded by the Tyee, the British Columbia-based online magazine.

"I'm probably walking right off the cliff into some unexpected public policy bog of which I'm unaware, but if asbestos is bad for parliamentarians in the Parliament of Canada, it just has to be bad for everybody else," he said.

But when he was later asked about the remark by reporters, he dropped the call for an end to exports.

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