Canada is finally removing a stain on the nation, imposing a comprehensive ban on the import and export of asbestos and asbestos-containing products. The federal government opened 2018 with the publication of draft regulations that would add asbestos to the export control list and ban its importation except for very limited purposes. The regulations, once in effect, will fulfill a promise made by the federal government in December 2016.
Until fairly recently, Canada was among the world’s top asbestos-producing nations. It no longer mines and exports asbestos, but it did so until 2011, exporting the product often to poorer countries with lax controls where asbestos remained in widespread use. Canada also maintained a public position that chrysotile asbestos, the variant mined in the country, was less dangerous than other variants and a cause for concern only when inhaled in larger quantities.
The Canadian position was clearly at odds with such reputable bodies as the World Health Organization, and the rationale for maintaining it vanished with the closure of Canada’s last remaining asbestos mine, the Jeffrey Mine near Asbestos, Quebec, in 2012.
The draft regulations fall short of an outright ban. Products currently in place (e.g., building material) need not be removed, and certain uses and activities will be permitted to continue. The regulations will include use, import and export exemptions for museum displays and for scientific research purposes. More significant are the exemptions granted to the chlor-alkali industry and to the exploitation of asbestos mining residues.
The chlor-alkali industry uses asbestos-containing products as filters in the production of chlorine and caustic soda. There are alternatives, albeit more costly. Given that workers in the industry are already protected by health and safety regulations, the federal government will exempt the chlor-alkali industry from the ban until December 31, 2025. The regulations will require labelling for any asbestos imported for use at chlor-alkali facilities during the phase-out period.
Asbestos mining residues contain valuable minerals, which has led to an exemption for mineral extraction from residues, this one without an expiry date. The federal government estimates there are 800 million tonnes of mining residues in Quebec that will have to be disturbed for site rehabilitation. However, residues may not be used to manufacture products containing asbestos, nor can residues be sold or used for construction or landscaping unless authorized by Quebec.
The comment period on the draft regulations runs until March 22, 2018.