An unnamed child on an Indian construction site, surrounded by asbestos-laden broken pipes. Photo courtesy of the Rideau Institute.

As a journalist, I am averse to use in print any hyberbolic language that diminishes the sway of my reasoning. Describing any human action as “appalling”, “immoral” or even “wrong” – no matter how justified – does not make for a constructive argument. Show – don’t tell. Lay out the facts and let people make up their own minds. This is what we are taught.

But this month, writing for the New Internationalist about Canada’s ongoing export of asbestos to the developing world, it has proven incredibly tempting to label my government’s corruption of science, waste of taxpayer money, and absolutely conscious poisoning of people as nothing short of “disgusting”. I’d even like to use the word “evil”. I would almost never use the word “evil” to describe actions that are merely misguided, made with the best of intentions, or the result of pure madness. But I might label the trade in asbestos “evil”.

Hyperbole aside, here are the facts:

Is asbestos a known carcinogen? Yes. Does the World Health Organisation support the claim of Canadian asbestos producers that the material can be used “safely”? No. Are there safe alternatives to asbestos? Yes. Are people still dying from Canadian asbestos? Yes. Will people continue to die in the future? Yes. Will those deaths be slow, painful, and incurable? Yes.

And here’s the key point: Does Canada permit the same use of a product it happily exports in its own country?


Is the Canadian export of white asbestos to developing nations, therefore, immoral? Awfully hard to say no.

This is a tricky topic to discuss without feeling indignant and sickened. Fossil fuel use, pollution and climate change involves us all as part of the problem. But the number of Canadians who are involved in the asbestos trade number only a few hundred – and the corporate schills at the top who fund the sheisty science and block motions to ban the material count as just a few dozen.

Meanwhile more than 100,000 people die every year from asbestos and 120 million more are daily exposed.

Are these few dozen people, far removed from and certainly conscious of their actions, evil?

Friends of mine who are more philosophically inclined than me have offered a few thoughts.

“It is done in cold blood, without passion, with fully cognitive capacity to understand the outcome of the action – so yes, it is evil.”

“Is the intent malicious? I don’t think you could call it evil because it seems to be without malevolency.”

Ultimately, the question of whether or not Canada’s support of the asbestos trade is evil really signals the need to answer a truly basic question about human nature:

Does evil exist?

A very old, and very difficult question. If you are of a spiritual or religious leaning, you probably think yes. If of a scientific or philosophical bent, you might be inclined to say no.

Pondering this, I asked a friend of mine – who works for the NSPCC and spends all her day researching the rape, beating and torture of children in the UK – if she believed in “evil”.

“Not really,” she said. “But I certainly believe in awful people.”