Hassan Yussuff is the president of the Canadian Labour Congress.
In my 20s and 30s, I worked as a mechanic in tight spaces under vehicles, handling clutches and brake pads without any protective gear. That meant I was exposed to asbestos, placing me among the more than 150,000 Canadians estimated to have come into contact with this deadly substance at work, many of whom work in construction, auto maintenance, ship building, waste management and remediation.
I have been lucky that it has not yet impacted my health. But for far too long, thousands of families have been shattered by the death of a loved one from asbestos-related diseases. It is estimated that 100,000 people worldwide die from such illnesses and that there are 2,000 new asbestos-related cancer cases each year in Canada, most of them fatal.
The enactment of a federal ban of asbestos and asbestos-containing products in December – the product of a hard fight by Canada’s unions, health advocates and affected families – is a significant step in the right direction. So too was the accompanying endorsement for listing chrysotile asbestos in the Rotterdam Convention, a multilateral treaty around the trade of hazardous materials.
Hopefully, fewer people will lose their lives from inadvertently breathing in the tiny particles that wreak such havoc on our bodies; the national ban also provides Canada with a platform to advocate for international action.
But it won’t immediately put a dent in these troubling statistics. Many people may still develop mesothelioma and lung cancer over coming decades.
Now that the federal government has put an end to new uses for asbestos, all levels of government must focus on protecting workers and the public from existing asbestos that is still in many homes and workplaces.
Provincial governments must ensure the nation’s schools, hospitals and government buildings are checked for its presence. We need building registries that are comprehensive and publicly searchable, and parents, educators and staff alike should be informed when they risk being exposed to asbestos.
While the federal government expanded its asbestos building registry to include all buildings, Saskatchewan remains the only province or territory with a mandatory public-building registry, which was established in 2013. This helps workers take preventative measures when working on renovations of existing buildings and ensures that those inside don’t inadvertently breathe in the substance. Knowing where asbestos exists is a critical first step in preventing exposures.
Provincial and territorial governments are responsible for the safe disposal of hazardous materials in their jurisdictions. Taking steps to evaluate and ensure sufficient capacity for safe disposal of asbestos helps make sure this deadly material is not disposed of in ways that puts everyone’s health at risk.
Ensuring the highest standards for training, including a certification requirement for contractors and others who work with asbestos, would help protect workers as well as the public who live and work in those homes and buildings.
Governments should also work toward tracking the locations where people were exposed to asbestos, and where people were actually diagnosed with a related illness. This would allow for better early detection and treatment.
Governments must also ensure a comprehensive health response for people already exposed to asbestos.
Our work is not done, and the stakes are particularly high for marginalized communities. Thousands of homes across the country are insulated with asbestos-laden vermiculite – known commercially as Zonolite – which was widely used in housing on military bases and First Nations reserves, going back to the 1960s. According to a 2005 audit by the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, at least 600 First Nation homes were filled with friable asbestos-laced vermiculite insulation.
We owe it to people like Raven Thundersky to do more. She became a tireless advocate after losing several family members to asbestos diseases, but sadly succumbed to asbestos-related cancer herself. Her home on Poplar River First Nation, like thousands of others on reserve, was filled with asbestos-containing vermiculite insulation. With clear jurisdiction for housing on First Nations reserves, Canada’s federal government must take steps to work with these communities on a plan to protect families from the dangers of asbestos.
Even though we’ve won this ban, unions, health care advocates and surviving family members will keep working for people’s safety and protection. We’re counting on lawmakers at every level of government to recognize the urgency. We can never know how many lives will be saved, but whatever the number, it will be significant – because even one life saved from the ravages of deadly asbestos is worth it.
Editor’s note: (Feb. 8, 2019) Incorrect information appeared in a previous version of this story. Saskatchewan’s mandatory public-building registry was established in 2013, and not in 1994 as part of the province’s Public Health Act. This version has been corrected.