Sunday, June 24, 2007

Seasonal Passages

At exactly 2:06 p.m. on June 21st, just at the very moment that the Northern Hemisphere marks the beginning of summer, the Earth began the gentle tilt southward that heralds the six-month journey toward winter. Until recently, this neverending transition through the seasons was a fairly seamless one. Each passage was marked, in turn, by the emergence of a new leaf, the buzz of summer's insects, the coming of the fall colors, the first frost, a gentle snow.

Traditionally the passage of seasons has been the romantic stuff of great poetry and literature. Beauty and power combined. When we think of this power of the seasons and the immensity of the planet, relative to our own insignificant proportions, it's hard to believe that we humans are altering this course at a dizzying pace.

But we are, conscious, willing, or not. We have yet to truly grasp that the threat of climate change is as much about the rate of change, as it is about the warming of the planet. The once predictable passage through the seasons has become much more like a thrill ride on a killer rollercoaster.

Consider the recent violent storms that ravaged much of Southern Ontario last week. Within a period of less than an hour the weather ran the gamut from still, hot and humid, to torrential rains, lightning and powerful, destructive winds that tossed trees around like matchsticks. In the aftermath, eerie calm, clear skies and cool temperatures were all that remained.

The problem is all in the naming. As old Bill Shakespeare eloquently pointed out, a rose by any other name is still a rose.

When scientists first observed the rising concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide caused by the burning of fossil fuels, they used the descriptive term, "greenhouse effect." This was intended to explain how the thickening layer of greenhouse gases was acting like the panes of glass in a greenhouse and heating the planet. Initially this was not an unwelcome concept for the often frozen residents of the Northern Hemisphere. As carbon dioxide levels continued to rise, primarily due to the habits of those same residents, scientists began calling the phenomenon "global warming." Unfortunately this label still wasn't enough to get our attention. And so we now call it "climate change", a horribly inadequate term, particularly given our essential belief that change is good.

In retrospect, if scientists had referred to our unintentional altering of our climate as, "an uncontrolled experiment capable of impacting all life on the planet at unprecedented speed and magnitude", maybe, just maybe, we would have paid attention a lot sooner.

But we didn't, because science is all about being able to replicate the results of experiments. And as climatologist Dr. Stephen Schneider pointed out, since we only have one planet with which to experiment, this was unfortunately impossible. For the rest of us who are driven self-centered comfort - something that for now is doesn't lend itself particularly well to conserving fossil fuels, switching off the air-conditioner, or parking the car, van or SUV.

Which basically leads us to where we are today - tallying the smog days, the premature deaths that are attributed to air quality and heat stroke, and the deadly catastrophic storms with such lovely poetic names as Rita and Katrina.

Even the smaller unnamed storms, like the one that ripped through the province last week, leave their mark. When the winds had calmed and we tallied our losses, a half a dozen trees had fallen on our property. Each magnificent is tree no longer able to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, no longer capable of helping to stem the tide of our demise, poetically and dramatically, adding its rotting biomass to the torrents of greenhouse gases already choking the atmosphere, changing the seasons.


Weather's fun. For up-to-date weather in your area, check out or

For more on the work renowned climatologist Dr. Stephen Schneider, visit

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Deadly Trade

Canadians have a reputation for being self-effacing and apologetic. Our attitude is so globally well-known that recently Monty Python alumnus Eric Idle quipped, "The first draft of your national anthem, 'O Canada', was actually called, 'Oh, Sorry!'"

Funny, but not necessarily true. O Canada, our home and native land, continues to promote, mine and export asbestos. According to Ban Asbestos Canada (BAC), "The Canadian asbestos trade has taken a deadly toll at home and abroad and will continue to do so for many years to come. This unnecessary loss of human life is unacceptable."

The problem is that all forms of asbestos are carcinogenic. According to BAC, this includes chrysotile, a white asbestos that is mined and exported in Canada. What is so troubling is that this isn't news. We've known about the dangers of asbestos since the early 1920s.

But asbestos means jobs, particularly in Quebec where the banning of asbestos would mean eliminating he jobs of the 4,000 workers who are directly or indirectly employed by the industry. Ironically, many of those workers will be among the front line victims of the deadly cancer, mesothelioma, caused by asbestos exposure. The trade off doesn't seem reasonable, fair or humane. And yet we continue to be one of the world’s largest exporters of this deadly substance. A whopping 95 percent of Canada's asbestos production is exported to the developing world where health and safely regulations are almost non-existent.

According to an article entitled The Asbestos Cancer Epidemic, by Joseph LaDou, (Environmental Health Perspectives, 2004),

"The asbestos cancer epidemic may take as many as 10 million lives before asbestos is banned worldwide and exposures are brought to an end. In many developed countries, in the most affected age groups, mesothelioma may account for 1 percent of all deaths. In addition to mesotheliomas, 5-7 percent of all lung cancers can be attributed to occupational exposures to asbestos."

Enough is enough. On June 22, The Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) will meet to consider the call to ban asbestos. The CCS is arguably the most powerful anti-cancer lobby in Canada. It is the profound and desperate hope that the condemnation of the CCS may finally get the government's attention and stop the deadly production and export of asbestos.

As a result, activists, labor unions and health coalitions are calling upon the Canadian public to put aside their quiet apologies and let their voices to be heard. Write, email, phone the CCS as soon as possible and encourage them to call for a ban on this deadly substance.

"Why should you care?" asks activist Janet McNeill, "Because asbestos is nasty, and it affects people from all walks of life: factory workers, teachers, students, the families of workers, families with asbestos insulation in their houses, First Nations communities - in other words, asbestos is a scourge that affects us all. And Canada exports it to developing countries where health and environmental protections are even less developed than our own. Many countries have banned asbestos. Canada is long overdue."

Enough said. Apologies, this time, are not accepted. It is no longer okay to be uniquely Canadian and wonderfully non-committal. We are spreading death at a painfully slow and horrible rate.

Unlike other cancers, where mortality rates are falling, a diagnosis of mesothelioma is generally considered a death sentence. According to Cancer UK, "By the time someone has symptoms and goes to their doctor, the disease is very often advanced. Because few people are diagnosed early, there are no reliable statistics for 5-year survival rates for the early stages of mesothelioma. Generally, of all those people diagnosed with mesothelioma only about 1 in 10 (10 percent) will be alive 3 years later and 1 in 20 (5 percent) will be alive 5 years later."

What is so tragic is that this disease is almost completely preventable.

Enough talk. It's time for action. Pick up your pen and save a life. Write:

Dr. Barbara Whylie, MD
Chief Executive Officer
National Office
Canadian Cancer Society
Suite 200
10 Alcorn Avenue
Toronto, ON M4V 3B1

and support the ban on asbestos production and export. You can also send an email to the attention of Dr. Whylie at Fax your letters to 416-961-4189.


Ban Asbestos Canada

International Ban Asbestos Secretariat

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Federal NDP MP Pat Martin has started a petition to ban the production and export of asbestos. For more information, email Mr. Martin at