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Glen Godden at his home in Langley January 19, 2016. Glen now in his 80â™s was exposed to asbestosis as a young man, when he used to open 50 lb bags of asbestos, mix it with water and trowel it on boilers as insulation. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The Canadian government has slowly, and we mean really slowly, been coming to terms with the dangers posed by asbestos and its uses.

Last year, after decades of insisting to the contrary, Ottawa finally admitted that "asbestos, if inhaled, can cause cancer and other diseases." Just before this long-delayed catharsis, the government ended its perennial opposition to the inclusion of the most common form of asbestos on an international list of hazardous substances.

Now the time for the final step in this evolution has come: Canada should join a 50-nation ban on asbestos that has the support of the World Health Organization, the Canadian Cancer Society and labour groups in this country.

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There's an urgency to this. Ottawa is about to embark on an infrastructure spending spree, and labour and health officials are worried that asbestos could show up in building materials. That would be a huge mistake.

Asbestos is the number-one killer of Canadian workers. More than 2,200 of them died from asbestos-related diseases between 2007 and 2012. Another 2,000 are diagnosed with these diseases every year, according to Cancer Care Ontario. About 150,000 Canadian construction workers, mechanics, shipbuilders and engineers are exposed to asbestos on a regular basis, according to Carex Canada, a group that monitors carcinogens in workplaces.

Ottawa, until recently a champion of Canada's once thriving asbestos-mining industry, maintained for far too long that asbestos fibres posed no risk as long as they were bound up in other materials. This self-serving claim ignored the fact that asbestos-bearing construction materials routinely break down, or are torn apart in home renovation projects or demolitions.

It is also this reasoning that allowed imports of asbestos-bearing products to increase in Canada last year. On the plus side, they only valued $8.3-million. Asbestos-related exports were even smaller – just $1.2-million, according to Statistics Canada. Canada's last asbestos mine closed in 2011.

Asbestos is today a tiny, vestigial industry in Canada. Hanging onto its few remaining scraps seems ludicrous, especially when the public health risk associated with it is so well established. It's time for Ottawa to let asbestos go.

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