Officials say cancer risk minimal to residents of Canadas last asbestos town

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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The presence of asbestos fibres lingers in the air of Canada's last town to mine the substance, but it doesn't translate into a cancer risk for its population, says a new government review.
Residents of Thetford Mines, Que., received a letter from the public health authority Friday advising them that despite a higher-than-normal presence of asbestos fibres, the risk of developing related cancers was minimal: about one death in the town every 35 years.
The issue is a sensitive one in the Quebec mining town, where the industry employs about 400 people.
The review by the provincial authority also urged the community of 25,000 to keep tabs on levels, which have been stable since 1997. The report warned the town take certain steps, like stop sprinkling asbestos tailings over the roads in winter.
Anti-asbestos advocates say the findings in the long-awaited report are actually alarming.
"It shows very high levels of asbestos fibres in the air and it says that there is a health problem," said Kathleen Ruff, a prominent asbestos critic.
"The bottom line is they are saying there is a problem and they are recommending that action be taken."
The province's public health authority was asked to investigate by local officials in 2007, following two conflicting reports on the impact of asbestos exposure in the community.
The health institute used the two contradictory studies as the basis of its review - one published by an asbestos victims' association, and the other by the province's environment ministry.
Due to health risks, asbestos is no longer used in Canada, but one variety of the substance - called chrysotile - is still mined in Thetford Mines.
The asbestos industry has claimed chrysotile can be used safely as long as precautions are followed.
Philippe Lessard, the local public health director who ordered the study, said that after consulting the report he's assured that the risk of developing cancer from the asbestos fibres is very low, but plausible.
"All asbestos, including chrysotile, can cause cancer in humans," Lessard said.
Lessard said the study uses four risk models and the number of deaths can vary to up to 15 deaths over 35 years. However, the model he chose - the one that accounts only for chrysotile, but not other possible asbestos types in the air - is the one he thinks best matches Thetford Mines.
"We can estimate, using the most favourable model where only the chrysotile variable is considered, the probability of death by cancer is one death by 35 years on average," he said.
Ottawa has spent about $20 million since the mid-1980s to promote asbestos use and there is very little political opposition to the industry in the province.
Several countries, especially poorer ones, still import asbestos from Canada despite numerous studies linking it to health hazards, including cancer.
But New Democrat MP Pat Martin, a critic of Canadian asbestos exports, says the Quebec study shows a need to stop asbestos mining and develop an exit strategy for mine workers.

Geographic location: Canada, Thetford Mines, Canadas Quebec Ottawa

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