Local activists winning fight against ‘Big Asbestos,’ demand more accountability from government and industry

The discrediting of a McGill University sanctioned study on the long-term safety of asbestos, under attack because it was paid for by a lobby group advocating for its continued safety, has two activists with local connections pleased with what they say is another step toward banning Canadian exports of the material.

Sisters Leah Nielsen and Stacy Cattran, whose father died of mesothelioma, agree with Dr. David Egilman, a professor at Brown University, who has said McGill's findings lack transparency and contain manipulated data.

According to Egilman, as the dangers of asbestos became better known in the 1960s, the industry decided to do its own research similar to that done by the tobacco industry, which stated that "Industry is always well advised to look after its own problems."

The study, which followed the health of 11,000 miners and mill workers in Quebec between 1966 and the late 1990s, is used by the Chrysolite Institute — a lobby arm funded by, overseen and closely associated with both Liberal and Conservative governments — to promote the use of asbestos overseas.

Egilman said he understands why the Chrysolite Institute was involved in the first place.

“Doubt is their product. They just need to have a little doubt in the dialogue. OK? And doubt allows you to go in and say, OK, maybe they’re right, maybe we’re right, but nobody’s sure."

Nielsen and Cattran not only agree that Egilman that McGill's asbestos study was questionable but say many studies before it conducted over the past several decades were meant to "provide political cover to the government's continuing support of the asbestos industry."

In a letter this month to the dean of McGill's school of medicine, 20 activists and scientists called on the university to carry out a  "thorough, independent and transparent investigation" of the original study, which they claim is “flawed, lacks transparency and contains manipulated data."

Last week, in response to the criticisms being leveled at their recent findings and a recent scathing CBC documentary that detailed the university’s past ties to the asbestos industry, McGill University said it would review the findings of the study.

Nielsen is happy with how CBC handled the issue. "(They) did an excellent job covering the asbestos issue and showing the corruption that has been prevalent over the past several decades.”

Nielsen is also happy McGill is taking the action to review the issue. She also believes the issue of exportation will become even more clear and compelling.

“When McGill's biased asbestos research of the past is fully exposed, the government of Canada will have no choice but to accept that asbestos mining and exports must be prohibited," said Nielsen.

She and her sister Stacy Cattran, both of whom are members of Canadian Voices of Asbestos Victims, are enjoying what they say is a slow but steady move toward victory on the issue.

Last month, for example, Nielsen’s research into Canadian asbestos exporters revealed that one of the industry’s prominent leaders was serving as an executive on the Canadian Red Cross Board of Directors.

Roshi Chadha, along with her husband Baljit, own Montréal-based company Seja Trading, a major Canadian exporter of asbestos to India, while actively serving as a member of the Canadian Red Cross’ Board of Directors.

When Nielsen's father was dying of mesothelioma in 2008 she received a great deal of support and supplies from Sarnia's branch of the Canadian Red Cross.

"We used the Canadian Red Cross services for items such as a portable toilet, a shower chair and a urinal when he became too sick to get out of bed," she said in a recent interview.

Mesothelioma is a malignant tumour of the covering of the lung or the lining of the pleural and abdominal cavities, often associated with exposure to asbestos.

Despite the apparent conflict of interest, Nielsen is a staunch supporter of the Canadian Red Cross and stresses her problem wasn’t with the organization – it was with Chadha.

“I think the Red Cross is a wonderful organization," said Nielsen, adding that she supports its disaster relief efforts.

Nielsen, who co-organized the Walk to Remember Victims of Asbestos with Cattran, said exporting asbestos to developing nations is inconsistent with the Red Cross' mandate to improve the lives of the most vulnerable people around the world.

Nielsen and Cattran organized a letter-writing campaign and lobbied the NGO which last month resulted in Roshi Chadha’s resignation from the Red Cross’ domestic governing body.

Additional research into Chadha revealed that that she is also a standing member of the boards of both St. Mary’s Hospital Foundation and McGill University.

Cattran said that those two activities are also incompatible and conflict with her company Seja Trading’s activities.

Nielsen was quoted saying in a recent interview, "Asbestos causes cancer and a hospital should not be legitimizing the asbestos industry by having one of the main faces of the asbestos industry sitting on their board.”

In response to the questions raised about conflicts of interest, St. Mary's Foundation said it is reviewing Chadha's position, but McGill's board issued a statement saying Chadha is a valued volunteer member, and it has no further comment.


—Joe Burd, joe@lambtonshield.com

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