Stephen is a professor and director for the Centre of Applied Health Research at Memorial University
I spent four years of my life working with a team, based at Memorial University, designing, developing, and implementing an occupational exposure and disease registry for the 2,500 or so former employees of the asbestos mining and milling operation in Baie Verte, Newfoundland. The operation functioned from the mid-1950s until it finally closed in 1994.
The registry was funded by the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission of the province and was done under the co-management of the commission, the United Steel Workers of Canada and a community group, the Baie Verte Peninsula Miners' Association. We succeeded in recruiting 1,003 former employees of the mine, including about 15 per cent who were deceased and were enrolled by next of kin. We found extremely high exposure levels in most of our registrants and very high rates of asbestos-related diseases, including lung cancer, mesothelioma, laryngeal cancer, asbestosis and other interstitial lung disorders. We also found a substantial number of people who reported suffering from one of these diseases but who could not produce clear medical confirmation. In addition, we found many cases of gastro-intestinal cancers which are suspected by scientists to be related to asbestos exposure, although the causal connection has not yet been definitively established.
What conclusions do I draw from this experience? First of all, our findings ought to put to rest once and for all the made-in-Canada myth that chrysotile asbestos – the kind that is mined in Canada – is not all that toxic and can be used safely. The government of Quebec, the government of Canada, the asbestos industry and a few allies in the research world have been insisting for years that chrysotile is not very toxic, particularly as compared to other varieties of asbestos, and that it can be mined, milled and used in manufactured goods such as brake linings and building insulation without harm. The 169 confirmed cases of asbestos-related diseases in our cohort who mined and milled pure chrysotile at Baie Verte make it perfectly clear that chrysotile is highly toxic.
The governments of Quebec and Canada must stop ignoring and/or defying the scientific evidence and ban all mining and export of asbestos and all use and import of goods containing asbestos. It is particularly important for Canada to ban all further export of asbestos. Canadian asbestos, exported to developing countries, is especially dangerous. CBC video reports from India have revealed that the conditions under which workers in those countries are made to transport, mill and process asbestos are utterly terrifying.
The second conclusion is that asbestos will continue to kill us for many decades. This is patently obvious in the developing world, where asbestos is still being aggressively mined and carelessly used. It is, however, also the case for Canada – despite the fact that production of asbestos has slowed and its use new in industrial products and in construction has declined. There are several grounds for concern:
- The number of Canadians who have, over the past decades, been exposed to asbestos at work is very large. It goes way beyond miners in Newfoundland, Quebec and British Columbia to include insulators, pipe fitters, construction workers, home renovators, automobile mechanics and people in many other trades – some of whom may not be aware of their exposures and the risks involved.;
- In addition to these occupational exposures, many Canadians have been exposed to asbestos in non-occupational ways. The most obvious example is the families of asbestos miners and other asbestos workers. They were exposed to the fibres that their spouses and parents brought home from work on their clothes and their shoes and their cars. The same is true, to a lesser extent, to the inhabitants of communities with asbestos operations who were exposed to the fibres in their air and water. In addition, people working and living in the huge number of pre-1970s buildings containing asbestos materials such as insulation, wallboard, tiles and pipes are also at risk, especially when those buildings undergo deterioration or renovation. As our infrastructure ages and an increasing number of buildings and structures are renovated or torn down, exposures both of workers and of by-standers will continue to grow.;
- Most significantly, asbestos-related diseases are distinctive in having extremely long latency periods – the lapse between when one first accumulates sufficient toxic exposure and the first signs of medical symptoms. In some cases, this latency period can be as long as forty years. So, even if we succeeded in eliminating all new exposure of Canadians to asbestos, new cases of asbestos-related disease will certainly continue to emerge for a long time to come.