A deadly disdain for science [Harper and asbestos] – by Peter McKnight (Vancouver Sun – July 9, 2011)

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pmcknight@vancouversun.com

The Conservative Party’s stance on asbestos -which drew worldwide condemnation -is just the latest example of the federal government’s embrace of an alternate reality bereft of scientific evidence and morality

In the atmospheric film Silent Hill, a dead mining town is forever shrouded in fog and falling ash, while those unfortunate enough to visit also find themselves forever trapped in an alternate reality, where science and morality have no hold.

It’s an apt metaphor for Quebec’s dying and deadly asbestos industry, as it slowly suffocates in a chrysotile cloud. But even more so, it’s an apt metaphor for the federal government’s asbestos policy, just the latest example of the Conservatives’ embrace of an alternate reality bereft of science and morality.

That policy received worldwide condemnation recently, after Canada became the only country in the world to oppose listing chrysotile asbestos under Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention, a multilateral treaty covering the importation of hazardous chemicals. Listing a substance on Annex III triggers the Convention’s Prior Informed Consent Procedure, which requires exporting countries to inform importers of the hazards that exist, and of the precautionary measures they ought to take in handling the substance.

Listing chrysotile does not, therefore, amount to banning the substance. Yet Canada opposed its listing anyway, and since the Convention operates by consensus, chrysotile remains absent from Annex III. Thanks to Canada, then, chrysotile exporters have no responsibility even to warn importers that they are dealing with a deadly carcinogen, or to advise them about safe handling.

Many critics, shocked by the government’s rank hypocrisy, noted that chrysotile is effectively banned in Canada, with some 96 per cent of Canadian asbestos destined for export to developing countries such as India, Indonesia and Thailand.

In fact, so concerned is the government about asbestos that it is spending more than $800 million to have it removed from the Parliament Buildings, including the prime minister’s office and his official residence at 24 Sussex Drive.

Others critics expressed surprise that the government would risk Canada’s international reputation by adopting a position in direct conflict with scientific evidence and any sense of morality, just to protect fewer than 500 jobs in Quebec’s dying asbestos industry.

The feds’ decision has therefore been met with both shock and surprise. Yet while the shock is understandable, the surprise is not: Anyone familiar with the history of this file will see this latest decision as characteristic of the Conservatives’ defence of asbestos and, more generally, of their hostility toward science and truth.

Canada has played a leading role in preventing the listing of chrysotile for many years, and had faced the wrath of the world long before this year. Consequently, in November 2007 Health Canada convened an international panel of asbestos experts and asked them to assess the risks of chrysotile.

The panel submitted its report in March 2008. Although Health Canada had promised to publish the report on its website, as is customary, no report appeared. This did not, however, stop Industry Minister Christian Paradis from mendaciously claiming that panel members disagreed about the “safe use” of chrysotile.

In fact, members never discussed safe use since it was beyond the panel’s mandate. But by claiming there were irreconcilable differences, Paradis generated skepticism about the report’s conclusions, including the finding that there is a “strong relationship” between chrysotile exposure and lung cancer.

Given Paradis’s false and irresponsible claims, panel chair Trevor Ogden and panel member Lesley Stayner both spoke out about the “gross misuse and misinterpretation” of the report, and once again called for its publication.

The government repeated its promise to make the report public, yet seven months (October 2008) after the 4,000-word report was submitted, the feds claimed they were still reviewing it -a claim Ogden described as “so obviously untrue as to be insulting.”

It’s more likely the feds were simply sitting on the report, since the 2008 Rotterdam Convention conference was held in October, and the report’s damning conclusions were certainly no help to Canada and its continued opposition to the listing of chrysotile.

The report was finally released in April 2009, but not in the usual way or for the usual reason. Rather than being voluntarily published on Health Canada’s website, it was released in response to a journalist’s access-toinformation request. And, as is evidenced by Canada’s behaviour at the 2011 Rotterdam Convention conference, the feds have still learned nothing from the report.

Yet this wilful ignorance is not by any means the most troubling aspect of the affair. Rather, the feds clearly sought to mislead the public -and thereby create skepticism about the risks of chrysotile -by misrepresenting the contents of the report at a time when no one could verify the claims being made.

As egregious as this behaviour is, it is not an aberration. It is almost identical to the behaviour of former health minister Tony Clement, who routinely misrepresented the science of harm reduction in his crusade against Insite, Vancouver’s supervised injection site.

As a result of Clement’s campaign, 130 physicians and scientists published an editorial in the journal Open Medicine accusing him of engaging in an effort “to misrepresent or suppress scientific findings for ideological purposes.”

But that’s not the worst of it. Unwilling to accept the evidence of more than two dozen published peerreviewed studies, Clement convened his own panel of hand-picked experts to assess the value of Insite. Yet shortly after their report was submitted, at least two panel members lamented that Clement misrepresented their findings.

Clement’s behaviour on the Insite file was identical to Paradis’s conduct on asbestos, and both were evidently attempting to create skepticism about the scientific evidence in a given area. But even that’s not the worst of it: Clement went further by attempting to create skepticism about science itself.

For the rest of this article, please go to the Vancouver Sun website: http://www.vancouversun.com/health/deadly+disdain+science/5077717/story.html

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