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Asbestos mine, Thetford Mines, Quebec, Canada. August 13, 1926. Photo a man standing at the edge of a cliff looking down into the asbestos mine. Credit: Library of Congress

The first thing you read when you go to the page about asbestos on the Saskatchewan government workplace safety website is, "Inhaling asbestos fibres can cause chronic, irreversible and life-threatening lung disease." When you visit the equivalent page for the body that oversees workplace safety in British Columbia, the first thing you read is, "Asbestos is a hidden killer." But go to the government of Canada page on the dangers of asbestos and you get this: "Asbestos was a popular material used widely in construction and many other industries." See the difference?

Ottawa's sunny outlook about asbestos is out of step with the facts and is sending a confusing signal to Canadians. While provincial workplace safety officials warn of a growing epidemic of asbestos-related illnesses, including the incurable cancer mesothelioma, the federal government peddles the line that there "are no significant health risks if asbestos fibres stay enclosed or tightly bound in a product." It's a disingenuous position, since it is precisely the fact that asbestos fibres are not staying "enclosed or tightly bound" in the many thousands of products they are in. Instead, those fibres are routinely getting into the lungs of people who are insufficiently aware of the degree to which they are in peril.

Provincial health and workplace safety officials are alarmed for two reasons: 1. There are literally thousands of construction products made before 1980 that contain asbestos – floor and ceiling tiles, insulation and drywall, among others – that are now being torn up by renovators and homeowners; and 2. mesothelioma has proven to have a long latency period, suddenly afflicting its victims 30 or 40 years after they were exposed to asbestos. Asbestos-related diseases are now showing up in white-collar workers who sat innocently at their desks while their offices underwent renovations, and in a second-hand fashion in the spouses and children of mine workers who had direct exposure to the mineral.

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Asbestos today ranks as the number-one workplace killer in Canada. Health officials believe mesothelioma diagnoses are going to continue to increase. Everyone in the industrialized world knows that asbestos is a deadly poison that needs to be handled with extreme care. Everyone, that is, except Canada, where the import and export of asbestos-laden products continue, and the federal government exists in a bizarre time warp in which asbestos is a safe product. Ottawa must review its position and bring it in line with reality.

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