The federal government should take immediate action to ban asbestos in Canada and establish an expert panel to review how the deadly substance is managed and disposed of in the country, a group of prominent organizations is urging, at a time when new annual numbers show asbestos is again – by far – the top on-the-job killer in Canada.
New data highlight the deadly toll of asbestos exposures on Canadian workers. Asbestos was the cause of death in 367 accepted claims in 2015, according to figures compiled by the Association of Workers' Compensation Boards of Canada, making it the No. 1 workplace killer in the country. Since 1996, there have been 5,614 recorded work-related fatalities from asbestos.
An open letter, submitted to the Prime Minister Wednesday and released exclusively to The Globe and Mail, calls for a comprehensive asbestos ban and says Canada should follow the lead of Australia in establishing an asbestos management review process. The letter was signed by 68 groups, including the Canadian Teachers' Federation, the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario and many large unions, along with more than 50 individuals, such as doctors, scientists, professors and families who have lost loved ones to asbestos-related diseases.
Unlike more than 50 countries around the world, Canada has never banned asbestos, and was a large exporter until the last mine closed in 2011. Despite a Liberal pledge to ban it, the mineral continues to enter the country in imports, such as pipes and brake pads. Medical experts say the number of deaths from asbestos-related diseases will continue to grow, because of the long latency periods and the impact of continued exposure.
The World Health Organization says all types of asbestos cause lung cancer, mesothelioma and other types of cancers, along with asbestosis. Mesothelioma – caused almost exclusively by asbestos exposure – has a long latency period of typically between 20 and 40 years. WHO says the most efficient way to eliminate these diseases is to stop the use of asbestos.
"People with mesothelioma are presenting to us on a regular basis," said Warren Teel, a physician at the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers in Sarnia-Lambton – a region with the highest rates of mesothelioma in the province as a result of industrial exposures.
Dr. Teel, who is one of the signatories to the letter, supports establishing an expert panel "so that we can deal in a comprehensive way with what's out there, have it identified, and have it removed properly."
Among occupations, plumbers, pipefitters, mechanics, insulators, carpenters, engineers and miners all recorded fatalities stemming from asbestos in 2015, the association's data show. The highest numbers of asbestos death claims were in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia.
Jerry Lanning was one patient. Described by his wife as gentle, kind – and never sick – he got what seemed to be the flu in January, 2013. By March, he couldn't get up the stairs. The diagnosis of mesothelioma came in April. "We got a death sentence that day," his wife, Bev Peckford, said in an interview from her home in central Newfoundland.
His exposure came from decades of working aboard ships, in engine rooms where pipes were covered with asbestos. There were no posted warning signs, his wife says. He died on July 31 at the age of 69, unable to walk or lie down, having lost 65 pounds.
"It was a horrible, horrible nightmare," Ms. Peckford said, through tears.
She wants to see a complete ban "today" on asbestos, as well as more public awareness and government transparency about the health risks of exposure. "I go to bed every night thinking: Why isn't this being talked about? Why isn't this more open? Why aren't people being warned?"
The public has a right to know where asbestos is, and where there are risks of potential exposures, said Fe de Leon, researcher at the Canadian Environmental Law Association, a signatory to the letter. "There's a perception that asbestos had been banned in Canada – which is not the case – and there are remaining challenges that we need to address, beyond the ban."
These issues include managing waste that contains asbestos, better reporting on asbestos exposures, and registries of asbestos-containing buildings.
Australia banned asbestos in 2003, and one expert who has seen first-hand the health effects of the carcinogen supports the call in Canada for a ban, and the creation of an expert panel.
"I am both shocked and surprised that Canada still allows the use of asbestos. It causes terrible afflictions, worse than any described by Dante in his Inferno," said Justice John O'Meally, who heard thousands of asbestos cases over 22 years in Australia as head of the Dust Diseases Tribunal.
"There is no known safe dose of asbestos," he said, adding that he sees "much merit" in establishing a panel of experts to advise on the removal of asbestos.
Despite the federal government's pledge to ban asbestos, no announcement has been made; nor has Ottawa given any timeline for a decision. The office of the Minister of Science, who oversees the file, has said it's using "a government-wide approach" to review strategy about asbestos.
More review isn't needed, said Laura Lozanski, occupational health and safety officer for the Canadian Association of University Teachers, who describes the prevalence of asbestos in public buildings built before the mid-1970s, such as hospitals, schools and universities, as "everywhere."
"We've shown that the science has been there, not just here in Canada but around the world. This is not something that needs to be re-discussed, certainly health-care providers and researchers have been able to show a direct link with regards to the adverse health effects from exposure to asbestos."
"What we need to do now is have an action plan – practical steps about how we're going to move forward to using safer alternatives, and controlling what we already have that's in our buildings."