Despite rising fears of asbestos-related illnesses, imports of products containing asbestos show little sign of slowing.
According to Statistics Canada figures, imports of asbestos-related items rose to $6-million last year from $4.9-million in 2013. The bulk of these goods consisted of asbestos brake linings and pads, which hit $3.6-million in imports in 2014, a seven-year high. Other imports included raw asbestos, friction materials and some items containing crocidolite, which is considered the most dangerous form of asbestos.
The dollar amounts may not seem like a lot of money given Canada's overall trade, but in terms of brake pads that translates into hundreds of thousands entering the Canadian market each year. The World Health Organization and other agencies have said that all forms of asbestos are carcinogenic and the best way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop using it.
Asbestos is by far the top on-the-job killer in Canada, accounting for almost 5,000 death claims since 1996. Many victims die of mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer, though it may take 20 to 50 years after exposures to materialize. And yet Canada continues to allow imports and exports of asbestos, unlike other dozens of countries such as Australia, Japan, Sweden and Britain, which have imposed a ban.
Canada has imported more than $100-million in asbestos brake pad and linings in the past decade. In total, more than $250-million in imports of asbestos and asbestos-containing products entered the country between 2004 and 2014. Canada was also one of the world's largest exporters of asbestos, though raw shipments stopped in 2011 after the last mines closed. Last year, this country exported $1.8-million worth of asbestos products.
A key concern about the brake pads centres on mechanics, who often use air hoses to clean car parts while replacing them, putting dangerous dust in the air. In the past decade, 61 claims for the deaths of auto, truck and bus mechanics stemming from asbestos-related diseases have been approved, according to the Association of Workers' Compensation Boards of Canada.
Brake mechanics, along with construction workers and shipyard workers, are among those most at risk of exposure to asbestos at work, according to the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. A tally by Carex Canada, a research project funded by the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, showed 4,300 people in auto repair and maintenance are exposed to asbestos in the workplace.
The federal government has long maintained a policy of "controlled use" of the mineral and Health Canada says that as long as the fibres are enclosed or tightly bound, there is no significant health risk. It's difficult to ensure, though, that fibres stay tightly bound as materials wear out.
"It's hard to quantify the risk, but with a known carcinogen that's associated with cancers at extremely low levels of exposure, I just don't think you can be too cautious on this. And it's not like there isn't a viable alternative. There are other brake pads out there," says Paul Demers, a University of Toronto professor in public health and director at the Occupational Cancer Research Centre at Cancer Care Ontario.
Canada's two main opposition parties want to see the end of asbestos use in Canada.
"We need to develop a comprehensive strategy to phase out the use of dangerous materials, especially asbestos," Liberal MP Geoff Regan said, adding that his party wants a ban of all asbestos use in Canada. "When it comes to brake pads, there's really no need to have these products in Canada since our manufacturers have largely replaced asbestos with safer alternatives. I can't imagine that Canadian drivers would accept the idea that these products are being used in their cars, if they were really fully aware of the situation."
Mr. Regan wants to see more education on the dangers of asbestos, a national registry of federal public buildings with asbestos and more monitoring of asbestos-related diseases in Canada.
Ending the use of asbestos brake pads "is an excellent place to start because brake shoes are one thing that a lot of home handymen, backyard mechanics can do on their own, so therefore you are exposing people outside the industrial setting and into the residential setting. There's unnecessary risk," said NDP MP Pat Martin, who has been calling for a ban for nearly two decades.
A couple of U.S. states have passed laws restricting use of brake pads with asbestos and momentum is building to limit their use among manufacturers and in imports.
That effort is going national. On Jan. 21, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Environmental Council of the States, the Brake Manufacturers Council and other industry stakeholders that will limit the use of asbestos (along with copper and other elements) in all brake pads including imports, said Bill Hanvey, executive director of the Brake Manufacturers Council, in an interview.
"We're trying to make sure we have a level playing field because asbestos is a cheaper ingredient and the North American manufacturers have eliminated asbestos from their formulations many years ago and substituted more expensive materials to avoid using asbestos," said Mr. Hanvey, who is based near Raleigh, N.C., and is also senior vice-president of the Automotive Aftermarket Suppliers Association.
"We want to make sure we're not put at a competitive disadvantage by the importation of products that contain asbestos."
Safer, made-in-Canada alternatives to asbestos are available, though they cost more. Rick Jamieson is president and chief executive officer of Guelph, Ont.-based ABS Friction, an asbestos-free brake-pad factory. He wants to see a complete asbestos ban in Canada.
"We would like to see the same legislation [as some U.S. states] so that it's a level playing field across North America and that Canada doesn't end up a dumping ground for asbestos brake pads," he said. "Because if they're going to ban them in the U.S., they're going to go somewhere."
Marc Brazeau, president and CEO of the Automotive Industries Association of Canada, said workers' safety is a top priority and that the organization would not object to a ban provided the industry was given sufficient notice. "If there is a phase-out period and an opportunity for companies to react, I'm very optimistic and confident that our industry would react in an appropriate way," he said.
Concern over brake pads has prompted Ontario's Ministry of Labour to issue a warning. Asbestos "in aftermarket replacement brake pads poses an increased risk of asbestos-related disease for auto brake mechanics," the ministry said in a 2013 alert.
It noted that the presence of asbestos in aftermarket brake pads "poses an increased risk of exposure to hazardous concentrations of asbestos dust during the maintenance and repair of asbestos-containing friction materials for auto brake mechanics." It recommended employers "only use brake pads that do not contain asbestos."
In an e-mail to the Globe, the ministry said it is "aware of and continues to be concerned about the hazard, and we are looking into what more can be done to ensure the safety of workers."
Health Canada's website still says asbestos poses health risks "only when fibres are present in the air that people breathe." It does not say that all forms of asbestos are a known carcinogen nor that even low levels of exposure can be dangerous. When asked last November if it plans to revise its website, last updated in October, 2012, a spokesperson said in an e-mail that "there are no plans to update it as the health risks to asbestos have not changed and there's nothing to add at this point."
The department said asbestos brake pads do not pose a significant health risk to consumers. Regarding the risks to mechanics' health in working with asbestos brake pads, Health Canada said "in the workplace, exposure associated with the use of brake pads containing asbestos could occur during installation, removal, and inspection processes if fibres become airborne."
Continued imports of asbestos brake pads is a concern, given that most garages and body shops aren't unionized, and subject to little regulatory oversight, says Jim Brophy, adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Windsor and former director of the Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers in Windsor and Sarnia.
"Why would we be importing it especially into operations like brakes, where the very nature of brakes is that there is a wearing down of the pad. It's endemic to the design of the thing."
He's critical of Health Canada's message that asbestos doesn't pose a big risk if fibres don't become airborne. "That doesn't talk about the real world. They don't put asbestos in a bottle and leave it on the shelves. People are actually grinding it, they're tearing it off, they're blowing it around. This is what you do with brake shoes and other products that have asbestos (such as pipes)."