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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Regulating a miracle substance : the politics of asbestos in Canada and the United States Hein, Gregory Allan


While asbestos has been called a 'miracle substance' because of its unique properties, asbestos has also caused cancer in those exposed to its indestructible fibres. This mix of benefits and costs has made the regulation of asbestos particularly difficult for policymakers; in both countries, regulation has been characterized by exceptional measures. In Canada, regulating asbestos has led to innumerable government studies, including the Ontario Royal Commission on Matters of Health and Safety Arising from the Use of Asbestos (1984). The Commission's Report was unique in its extensive scope and detail. Its three volume report included a detailed treatment of asbestos-related diseases, quantitative risk estimates, and assessments of current regulations. The regulatory history of asbestos in the US was also somewhat exceptional. It involved a protracted battle between the Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Management and Budget. Out of this battle came a House Subcommittee investigation into OMB interference in EPA rulemaking (1985). The comprehensiveness of the Royal Commission's Report is highly significant given that detailed scientific explanations of policy, and the criteria used to balance costs and benefits are usually not explicitly revealed by Canadian regulators. In this sense, the somewhat anomalous nature of the Commission's Report offers an especially detailed view of regulating hazardous substances in Canada. Like the Royal Commission Report, the House investigation provides an extraordinarily detailed look at the politics of regulating a hazardous substance. Out of these involved deliberations, though, emerge very different policies on asbestos. While the US has implemented a three-stage ban, Canadian regulators view asbestos primarily as an occupational problem. The workplace standards of the US, Ontario and Quebec differ, with the US being more stringent. The contributions of this paper stem from its balanced consideration of scientific and political determinants and its comparative nature. This balanced consideration illustrates the double impact of science. While science can set the boundaries of a policy debate, uncertain areas of scientific evidence are usually politicized by competing interests. Thus, the less science is certain, the more politics matters. Within the boundaries set by science, various political forces have an impact on the policy process. Policies are shown to emerge from very different interrelationships between state structures and societal actors, influenced by varying degrees of economic dependence on asbestos. Group theory alone fails to explain the divergent policy outcomes; so do neo-Marxist and institutionalist approaches. Thus, this study demonstrates the superiority of integrative approaches, as opposed to those which emphasize one causal variable at the expense of others.

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