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Vancouver workers face asbestos danger with quick demolition jobs

Lee Loftus, a former insulator who has asbestosis after years of exposure from working around asbestos, walks in front of a house set for demolition in Burnaby, B.C., on Sunday. Mr. Loftus says the demolition industry is struggling to find qualified contractors who understand the hazards involved in tearing down older homes.

Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

Crews demolishing Metro Vancouver's older homes could be facing more exposure to deadly asbestos products as contractors try to cut corners amid the region's ongoing housing boom, according to the agency that protects B.C.'s workers.

Al Johnson, vice-president of WorkSafeBC's prevention services, said Canadian workers no longer come into contact with heavy amounts of the carcinogenic mineral substance, used extensively in many industries until the late 1970s.

But, those now levelling Metro Vancouver's older houses – some of which have asbestos in linoleum and vinyl tiles, drywall and insulation – may still be breathing in a substance that could lead to severe health problems 20 to 40 years from now, he said.

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"It's very hard to quantify [the ongoing risk], but we recognize that this is an industry that doesn't have a bar, if you will, to the extent of how demolition needs to be done," Mr. Johnson said. "There are a huge number of demolition companies, some are very large and employ a number of workers and some of them are very, very small.

"In fact, we probably don't even know some of those out there doing this work."

Across Vancouver proper, the city has fielded more demolition applications this year – at least 1,141 to date – than any in the past decade as buyers scramble to build bigger, single-family houses or denser, multifamily housing on a finite supply of existing properties.

Meanwhile, a WorkSafeBC inspection blitz of 110 home renovation and demolition sites that started in July has so far brought 246 non-compliance orders, close to the 257 issued last year after nearly double the amount of inspections. In 2014, the agency issued 20 penalties, which can vary from $1,000 to $30,000 depending on the size of a company's payroll.

"We're trying to ensure that the industry is vigilant and the municipalities are vigilant to the potential for more workers to be exposed to asbestos as these demolitions are done," Mr. Johnson said of the campaign that ends in December.

Under provincial law, a home must be tested for hazardous materials before it comes down. That means a demolition company must take numerous samples from different areas of the house and analyze them for asbestos and other harmful substances. In five communities – Vancouver, Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Nanaimo and Saanich – contractors must submit the results of these surveys before a demolition permit is granted.

Last year, WorkSafe found 43 per cent of all hazardous material surveys done by contractors renovating or demolishing homes were inadequate.

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If asbestos is found, it must be carefully extracted and disposed of properly. Some contractors find this process too lengthy and costly, Mr. Johnson said.

"Where we see flagrant non-qualified persons is where they've taken one sample and they say the house does not contain asbestos," he said. "Our officers show up and know darn well that there are five different types of product that could contain asbestos."

There are no certification standards for asbestos abatement professionals, but they face performance-based inspections from WorkSafe.

Phil Hochstein, president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of B.C., said his 1,200 members take the issue "extremely seriously" and that specialty contractors have evolved to deal with the waste properly.

"It has become a science, not an art," Mr. Hochstein said.

Lee Loftus, business manager of the B.C. Insulators union local 118, said Metro Vancouver's demolition industry is still struggling to find enough qualified contractors who understand the scope and nature of the hazards involved in tearing down older homes.

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"We're very concerned about a cowboy approach to the demolition of housing," said Mr. Loftus, who is a retired insulation worker. "Anybody that can buy a retired backhoe or excavator and an old dump truck are now demolition experts."

He says the proper disposal of material filled with asbestos can add upwards of $25,000 to a demolition and involves covering off the structure with plastic and tape while the affected parts are removed.

Even low levels of exposure may raise the risk of cancer and all forms of asbestos are carcinogenic, according to the World Health Organization.

Asbestos has become Canada's top driver of work-related deaths, causing diseases such as mesothelioma and asbestosis – the chronic condition whereby lung tissue is scarred by inhaled particles of the mineral.

Last year, 77 British Columbians died from asbestos-related diseases, according to WorkSafe's claims.

Mr. Loftus, whose compensation claim for asbestosis was accepted in 2000, expects that such deaths will continue to climb over the next decade, as those exposed to asbestos in the 1970s die. It will take another 30 years until the today's exposures can be measured on workers, he said.

"It's not a traumatic death, it's a long-term death."

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About the Author
News reporter

Mike Hager is a general assignment reporter at the newspaper’s B.C. bureau. He grew up in Vancouver and graduated from the University of Western Ontario’s Huron College and Langara College. Before joining The Globe and Mail, he spent three years working for The Vancouver Sun. More


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