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Ottawa’s change of heart on asbestos welcome but late

Mineral asbestos: Ottawa now says all types of asbestos can be deadly.

When Ottawa has a major new policy it wants to announce, it often makes a "Major Policy Announcement (photo op to follow)." Not so when it comes to asbestos, though.

This week, The Globe learned that the government had quietly changed its web page on the health risks of asbestos. The difference between the old web page and the new one is categoric. The old began, "Asbestos was a popular material used widely in construction and many other industries. If asbestos fibres are enclosed or tightly bound in a product, for example, asbestos siding or asbestos floor tiles, there are no significant health risks."

The new one begins: "Learn about asbestos and how exposure can be dangerous to your health. Also find out how to properly handle a potential asbestos problem. Asbestos, if inhaled, can cause cancer and other diseases."

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This is a historic shift in Ottawa's attitude toward asbestos. It brings the federal government in line with many of the provinces, where workplace safety officials have long been aware that asbestos is by far the number-one killer of Canadian workers. "Inhaling asbestos fibres can cause chronic, irreversible and life-threatening lung disease," says the Saskatchewan government workplace safety website.

More than 2,200 people died from asbestos-related diseases in Canada between 2007 and 2012, according to workers' compensation claims. There have been more than 5,000 deaths in all since 1996. And more people are falling sick all the time.

But until its quiet conversion, Ottawa continued to pretend asbestos posed "no significant health risks."

That's shameful. This laggard attitude has prevented Ottawa from developing a comprehensive strategy for reducing exposure to asbestos, as the Canadian Cancer Society pointed out last month. It may have delayed actions that could have saved lives in this country.

And now, without warning or explanation, Ottawa has done an about-face. After years of calls from health-care and occupational safety experts to admit that asbestos is a known carcinogen, the government has finally seen the light. That's cold comfort for the thousands already dead and sick, and for their families.

It's even more shameful the government didn't have the courage to publicly announce its new embrace of the facts, instead sliding it surreptitiously into public view and then going mum on the reasons.

But then, Canada and its government have always had a tortured relationship with asbestos. We were once the world's biggest exporter of asbestos and a huge producer of products containing its fire-proof "miracle" fibres. The industry produced huge revenues and thousands of jobs. Asbestos was used for insulation in military bases and in homes on First Nations reserves. You could sprinkle on your Christmas tree as fake snow. It was used in cigarette filters, too.

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By the 1980s, though, concerns about its safety had grown to the point that some countries began to ban its use. Production diminished slowly; Canada's last asbestos mine closed in 2011. Today there are more than 50 countries, including Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom, that don't allow the import or export of asbestos or asbestos-related products.

Not so Canada, though. This conflicted country has never banned asbestos. Last year, imports of asbestos-related products rose to $6-million, compared with $4.9-million the year before. Most of the imports were brake linings and pads for vehicles – and therein is the big lie about asbestos.

Ottawa for too long maintained that asbestos was safe if the fibres remained enclosed or tightly bound, as they would be in a brake pad. But unless you are willing to drive without ever once applying the brakes on your car, it is physically impossible for the fibres to remain bound. The brakes wear out and need to be replaced. The mechanics who replace brake pads are the most at risk – thousands of them are exposed to asbestos in the workplace, according to one study.

Asbestos doesn't have to be imported to be a threat to Canadians, though. It is also destroying lives as people renovate or demolish homes built in earlier eras. Tiles and insulation are breaking down or getting pulled up unsafely, once again putting the lie to the claim asbestos is harmless if "enclosed or tightly bound." It's as if the government believed that arsenic is harmless – as long as it's in a bottle.

As well, asbestos has cruelly caught up with people who were exposed to it decades ago, rearing its head in the form of a slow-acting cancer called mesothelioma. The number of accepted workers' compensation claims for mesothelioma in Canada rose 216.4 per cent between 1997 and 2010, according to one study.

It's not as if the government hasn't been paying attention to the growing death toll and the country's outlier status. It has been passively signalling for a while that it is willing to abandon asbestos once and for all. For instance, the government did not oppose the recent inclusion, on an international list of hazardous substances, of one form of asbestos called chrysotile. Until its sudden reversal, Ottawa championed chrysotile as a "less potent" destroyer of human lung tissue, a ludicrous stance.

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In the end, the way these changes were announced is less important than the fact the government has taken a positive step. What matters now is where Ottawa goes from here. The next logical steps are a ban on asbestos and a comprehensive plan for its safe removal from homes, schools, office buildings and cars.

After that comes the question of the liability of a government that inexplicably hung on for too long to dangerously outdated, and potentially deadly, claims about the safety of asbestos.

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