The Canadian asbestos sector wants Ottawa’s help to challenge a death-toll estimate from the World Health Organization that says asbestos-related diseases kill more than 100,000 people every year.
The figure is a major irritant for the industry, one often cited by critics who want to block future asbestos development over health concerns.
A leading industry player says the estimate by the WHO, the United Nations health authority, is an exaggeration based on unfounded evidence.
“Where are those deaths? And name at least 10 of those deaths,” Bernard Coulombe told The Canadian Press in an interview from the Quebec town of Asbestos.
“It’s absolutely a fantasy.”
Coulombe noted that the WHO has not responded to his repeated requests for the evidence. The organization only deals with the governments of member states — not industry figures.
To get answers, he said he will ask the Canadian government to step in and urge the Geneva-based organization to provide scientific proof behind the statistic.
“This bad publicity hurts us enormously as a corporation,” said Coulombe, who was forced to halt production at his mine a few months ago due to financial problems.
He is the president of Jeffrey Mine, which was one of the last two remaining asbestos mines in Canada when it suspended production last year. The other mine has since closed, but some proponents hope it will reopen as well.
For months, Coulombe has been trying to line up investors so he can secure a $58-million bank-loan guarantee from the Quebec government to revive the Jeffrey operation.
Physicians and activists from around the world have campaigned to shut down the Canadian sector — and its exports — for good.
They say the health risks of Canadian asbestos are being shipped to poorer countries, where safety standards are limited.
A senior official for the WHO said the organization stands by its estimate that asbestos-related diseases, such as certain forms of lung cancer, kill more than 107,000 people around the world each year. The figure relates specifically to people exposed to asbestos fibres at work.
Ivan Ivanov, a team leader in the WHO’s department of public health and environment, said the estimate is based on data from published scientific research.
He said the numbers are calculated as a proportion of all reported lung-cancer deaths, based on certain epidemiological parameters.
Ivanov could not immediately provide further details on the figure because he was awaiting a detailed explanation from a WHO epidemiologist.
He stressed that the figure is a scientific estimate, not an exact count.
“This is not (from a list of) 107,000 names that disappeared last year,” Ivanov said in a phone interview from Geneva.
He said exposure to all forms of asbestos — even at very low levels — can cause cancer.
The WHO’s goal, Ivanov added, is to see countries stop the use of all types of asbestos, including the Canadian form known as chrysotile.
The Canadian sector insists that chrysotile is not as dangerous as other types of asbestos and that safety conditions for workers have vastly improved.
Ivanov isn’t swayed by the argument. “In the industry, they use any kind of arguments, basically, to refute data that they don’t like,” he said. “Whatever numbers WHO publishes — some people like them, some people don’t.”
He said if the Canadian government, which has been a supporter of the industry, requests an official reply on this estimate, the WHO will provide it.
The federal government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether it would contact the WHO on behalf of the industry.