Representatives from the Canadian asbestos industry are appealing to the federal government in Ottawa to help them challenge death toll estimates released by the World Health Organization (WHO) which state that more than 100,000 people each year die of asbestos-related diseases.
According to a Canadian Press article, Bernard Coulombe, president of the now-silent Jeffrey Asbestos Mines, claims that the statistics touted by WHO are “an exaggeration based on unfounded evidence.”
“Where are those deaths? And name at least 10 of those deaths,” Coulombe said in an interview from the Quebec town of Asbestos. “It’s absolutely a fantasy.”
He says that WHO, the health agency of the United Nations, has repeatedly failed to respond to his request to provide scientific evidence to back up those statistics. He has asked the Canadian government to step in and demand answers to his questions; particularly, how WHO personnel arrived at that 100,000 figure.
“This bad publicity hurts us enormously as a corporation,” said Coulombe, whose mine closed last year, citing financial problems. The other asbestos mine in Quebec is now closed as well and proponents of a ban on asbestos production and export are hoping to keep them closed for good. Coulombe, however, is trying to secure a $58 million bank loan from the Canadian government so that he can re-open what was once Canada’s largest and most profitable asbestos mine.
The World Health Organization, in the meantime, says it stands behind its figures, noting that they relate specifically to individuals who suffer asbestos exposure at work. The statistics, say Ivan Ivanov, a team leader with the organization’s public health and environment department, are gathered from published research done by reputable scientists. He did note, however, that the figures are a scientific estimate, not a list of names submitted by doctors around the world.
While Canada maintains that its form of asbestos – chrysotile – is not as dangerous as other forms if handled correctly, it is the goal of WHO to see all countries stop the use of all kinds of asbestos, stressing that even low levels of exposure can cause diseases such as asbestosis and pleural mesothelioma.
“In the industry, they use any kind of arguments, basically, to refute data that they don’t like,” Ivanov said. “Whatever numbers WHO publishes — some people like them, some people don’t.” He adds that they will reply to Ottawa if the government makes an official request in regards to the statistics.