(Reuters) — Canada has dropped its long-time opposition to the international listing of asbestos as a hazardous material, a designation intended to curb the use abroad of the fire-resistant substance, which can cause cancer and other illnesses.
Canada had been the main opponent of such a listing, which would require exporters to warn importing countries of the hazards of asbestos, and would allow countries to ban its import. The listing would not of itself ban its sale.
Industry Minister Christian Paradis said he made the decision as a logical consequence of plans by Quebec's provincial premier-designate, Pauline Marois, effectively to end the production of the substance. Quebec is the only place in Canada where it's produced.
Canada had long worked against the listing under the United Nations' Rotterdam Convention, fearful it would put Quebec asbestos mining out of business.
"It would be illogical for Canada to oppose the inclusion of chrysotile (asbestos) in... the Rotterdam Convention when Quebec, the only province that produces chrysotile, will prohibit its exploitation," Paradis said.
Paradis made the announcement in Thetford Mines, his birthplace in the heart of his electoral district, and once a huge player in asbestos production.
Canada has been the only Western developed country to export asbestos, which is estimated to kill more than 100,000 people around the world every year. It had continued to export it even though it strictly regulated its use domestically.
From 1900 through 2003, it accounted for one-third of all worldwide production of all types of asbestos, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Only Kazakhstan and Russia collectively produced more.
But asbestos production had been dwindling in Canada. It dropped to fifth on the list of asbestos producers in 2011, with production less than a third of what it had been five years previously, according to the U.S. Geological Survey,.
Only six countries were producing quantifiable amounts of asbestos last year: Brazil, Canada, China, India, Kazakhstan and Russia. It is still used to strengthen cement products and roof shingles, and the industry says those uses are safe.
Successive Canadian governments had refused to step in and ban asbestos production, arguing that if used appropriately it was not harmful, but they were embarrassed at international meetings when they defended its use.
The outgoing Liberal government in Quebec had announced a $58 million loan to restart the Jeffrey Mine, which would have been the only active asbestos mine in the province, but the incoming Parti Quebecois, elected on Sept. 4, has pledged to cancel that loan, with the resulting end of asbestos output in Canada.