Health Canada has strikingly revised its position on the health risks of asbestos exposure, bringing the federal government more in line with other developed countries.
The recent changes to the department's website are significant, with the page about asbestos replacing information that was dated from 2012.
Among the shifts, the site no longer says one form of asbestos – chrysotile, the type that Canada mined and exported for years that is still most commonly used – is "less potent" and does less damage than other types. The World Health Organization and other medical bodies have long said all forms of asbestos are carcinogenic.
In addition, Health Canada no longer says the danger comes when asbestos is inhaled in "significant quantities" (the WHO says there is no safe threshold); and it now clearly says that "breathing in asbestos fibres can cause cancer and other diseases."
The last line represents "a landmark shift" by the government, "an important fact that was not previously acknowledged on the website," said Linda Reinstein, an asbestos widow and president of the Washington, D.C.-based Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. The changes are "promising, but it is just the first of many steps required to protect the public from asbestos."
The revisions come after The Globe and Mail has reported that asbestos is the single largest cause of workplace death in Canada, accounting for almost 5,000 death claims since 1996.
Unlike dozens of other countries, such as Australia, Germany and Japan, Canada has not banned asbestos use, and trade data obtained by The Globe show imports of asbestos-containing products, such as brake pads and pipes, continue to enter the country.
Health experts, including doctors and researchers, have long criticized Health Canada for playing down the risks of asbestos exposures.
"This is a big move forward in actually characterizing asbestos as a known carcinogen," said Trevor Dummer, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia's School of Population and Public Health.
Health Canada's changes bring it "much more in line with current thinking and current messaging that other governments are placing on this product," he said.
"There's more to be done … but this is a good start."
The federal Conservatives have long maintained a policy of "safe and controlled use" of asbestos in Canada, which was once one of the world's largest exporters of the mineral; its last mine closed in 2011. Canada's position on asbestos has long been at odds with approaches in other countries, such as Australia and Britain, which have had clearer warnings about health risks.
In May, Health Canada told The Globe it had identified its asbestos information as a "priority" for review amid a broader effort to provide more "plain language" health information. In an e-mail Tuesday, it said diseases caused by asbestos exposure "can and should be prevented" and that the goal of this update is to "communicate this more clearly."
Stacy Cattran, whose father died of mesothelioma in 2008 after workplace exposure in the Sarnia, Ont., area, said she is grateful for any progress made in protecting people from the dangers of asbestos. But she says regulations have not prevented people from being exposed, and questions why the federal government "still allows products containing asbestos [such as toys, drywall and pipes] to be sold in Canada in 2015."
The change "represents a positive step by Health Canada," said Paul Demers, director of the Occupational Cancer Research Centre at Cancer Care Ontario at the University of Toronto. He supports the move to stop "the differentiation of different types of asbestos, which I don't think is useful from a prevention point of view. Even if you feel as though there's a quantitative difference in risk, the fact is, when a member of the public or somebody in the workplace encounters asbestos, they just know it's asbestos. And there's no way to tell what kind until you put it under a microscope – so you've got to treat all of it as equally hazardous."
The new page also now emphasizes the risk of exposures stemming from do-it-yourself home renovations and from car parts, such as brakes and transmission components. The Globe reported in March that imports of asbestos-containing brake linings and pads hit a seven-year high last year, which raises concern that mechanics and others who fix cars and trucks could be unknowingly inhaling dangerous dust.
The Prime Minister's Office did not respond to a request for comment on whether the federal government's stand has changed, instead referring all questions to Health Canada.
Ms. Reinstein and Ms. Cattran, along with Prof. Demers and Prof. Dummer, all say more measures are needed to protect people from the health risks from exposure, including an asbestos ban in Canada. Both main opposition parties favour a ban of asbestos use in the country.
"It's time asbestos is banned so future generations don't have to watch their fathers and mothers cringe in pain as they suffocate to death as we watched our electrician father do," Ms. Cattran said.
With files from reporter Kelly Grant.