safe in Canada
In asbestos policy, Canada is at odds with other developed countries, almost all of which have both banned asbestos and launched national campaigns to educate their citizens on its dangers.
Regarding exports and imports, Canada’s long-standing position is that “safe and controlled use” of the mineral poses little risk to human health.
Health Canada’s website maintains that chrysotile (the form of asbestos mined in Quebec) is safer than other types of asbestos, and that asbestos poses risks only when its fibres become airborne and “significant quantities” are inhaled. It plays down the causal relationship between asbestos and some forms of cancer. The website does not inform Canadians that asbestos is the No. 1 cause of work-related deaths. (In contrast, the U.S. Acting Surgeon General, Boris Lushniak, reminded the American public in April that there is no known safe level of asbestos exposure.)
“Chrysotile is different from the amphiboles both structurally and chemically. It is generally accepted that chrysotile asbestos is less potent and does less damage to the lungs than the amphiboles.”
“If asbestos fibres are enclosed or tightly bound in a product, for example in asbestos siding or asbestos floor tiles, there are no significant health risks. Asbestos poses health risks only when fibres are present in the air that people breathe.”
“Asbestos poses health risks only when fibres are present in the air that people breathe. How exposure to asbestos can affect you depends on:
- The concentration of asbestos fibres in the air
- How long the exposure lasted
- How often you were exposed
- The size of the asbestos fibres inhaled
- The amount of time since the initial exposure”
“Approximately one third of all homes built in Australia contain asbestos products. The widespread use of asbestos has left a deadly legacy.”
“Both friable and non-friable asbestos pose a significant health risk to all workers and others if the materials are not properly maintained or removed carefully.”
“Asbestos is a known carcinogen, and the inhalation of asbestos fibres is associated with increased incidences of a number of diseases including pleural disease, asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. Even limited or short-term exposure to asbestos fibres can be dangerous but exposure does not make development of an asbestos related disease inevitable.”
Between 2006 and 2011, Canada was the only developed nation to oppose bringing asbestos under the control of the Rotterdam Convention, a United Nations-sponsored treaty, signed in 1998, that requires the exporters of hazardous substances to disclose the risks.
Indeed, the Conservative government has been a stalwart friend of the industry. “Only the Conservative party will defend this industry here and everywhere in Canada,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in Quebec on the campaign trail in 2011. While the Tories were fighting international efforts to restrict trade in asbestos, the government was simultaneously spending millions to remove asbestos from the Parliament buildings and the prime minister’s residence.
Ottawa’s support, however, predates the Harper era and was for many years seconded in Quebec City. For two decades, both the federal and Quebec governments provided millions of dollars in funding to an industry lobby group, The Asbestos Institute, which was rebranded as the Chrysotile Institute in 2004.
Canada’s last two mines, both in Quebec, closed in 2011 amid rising costs and after one failed to get bank-loan guarantees it sought from the provincial government. In 2012, the federal government said it will stop blocking asbestos’ inclusion under the Rotterdam Convention (the next round of decision making is in 2015). The Chrysotile Institute quietly closed in 2012.
Photos Two scenes from the Black Mine in Quebec. The town of same name (right), which is part of the municipality of Thetford Mines, is engulfed by tailings from the dormant mine, which is owned by LAB Chrysotile. (Louie Palu for The Globe and Mail)
Still, the Canadian government’s position remains much as it was a decade ago — advising safe and controlled use of chrysotile asbestos — even though there is no longer much of an industry to defend, and despite mounting evidence of the hazards of exposure to asbestos, no matter the type.
Newfoundland’s Baie Verte asbestos mine offers a case study. The first worker health registry of its kind in Canada, released as part of a study last year, examined the health of 1,003 former workers at the mine. One hundred and sixty nine of them have asbestos-related disease. The exposures to chrysotile asbestos, “one of the most dangerous industrial toxins known,” as the study calls it, happened between the 1950s and the early 2000s, affecting everyone from miners to managers.
Because some workers had already died, and some cases were not diagnosed, the total of 169 understates the extent of cases, while new cases “could very well be diagnosed for some years to come,” the study says. The lead author of the study is not impressed by Ottawa’s claim that chrysotile can be safe.
“The high levels of disease incidence in our cohort make it clear that that claim is blatantly false,” says Stephen Bornstein, director of the Newfoundland Labrador Centre for Applied Health Research at Memorial University. “Chrysotile is probably not quite as toxic as the amphibole [varieties] but it is still very toxic.”
The Newfoundland study along with a large body of scientific research belies Ottawa’s position.
“There is no scientific doubt that all forms of asbestos are dangerous as well as carcinogenic,” says Richard Lemen, an Atlanta-based epidemiologist and retired Assistant Surgeon General of the U.S. Public Health Service. “I am surprised Canada has not completely banned import and export of all forms of asbestos.”
(The U.S. hasn’t introduced a ban, but has more stringent regulations and curbed its use earlier than Canada.)
Photo Tailing piles like these in the town of Thetford Mines are a byproduct of the asbestos mining boom that began in the region after a farmer discovered deposits of the mineral in 1876. (Louie Palu for The Globe and Mail)
The World Health Organization concurs with Dr. Lemen and other scientists that all forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans, noting that it can cause not only mesothelioma but also cancer of the lung, larynx and ovary. The most efficient way to stop asbestos-related diseases, it says, “is to stop the use of all types of asbestos.” Even very low exposures raise the risk of cancer, it says.
Among the organizations that have called on federal and provincial governments to ban the use and export of asbestos are the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Lung Association, the Canadian Public Health Association and the Public Health Physicians of Canada.
Canada needs “a comprehensive strategy to phase out the use and export of asbestos, as well as improved monitoring of exposures and asbestos-related diseases,” says Dr. Robert Nuttall, director of cancer control policy at the Canadian Cancer Society.
The federal government would not make any spokesperson available for an interview about its current position on asbestos. The requests, repeated over a three-week period, were made to the Department of Trade, Health Canada and Environment Canada. In an e-mail, Health Canada said the information on its website “remains accurate,” and that the government has “consistently acted to protect Canadians from the health risks of asbestos.”
In an interview about occupational health and safety on May 15, federal Labour Minister Kellie Leitch, a surgeon by profession, said that exposure to asbestos had not come up as a concern during her 10 months in the portfolio. “You are the first person to raise it with me,” she said. Asked whether Ottawa would flag government buildings containing asbestos, as Saskatchewan does, or ban imports, she said, “I’m open to any suggestions that make workers safer on the worksite.”
The minister’s office declined several requests for a follow-up interview expressly about asbestos exposures, saying she is too busy.
“It's a man-made disease. Canada should ban the use and trade of [asbestos] products in all forms and ultimately work towards safe removal and disposal from the environment.” — Geoff Fary, chairman of Australia's Asbestos Safety and Eradication Council.
Countries like Australia have taken a much more pro-active approach to asbestos.
Australia was once one of the world’s largest consumers of asbestos and also mined it. The country banned asbestos exports and imports in 2003.
“The only way that you can prevent people from contracting asbestos-related diseases is by not pussyfooting around,” says Geoff Fary, chairman of the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Council, in an interview from Melbourne.
Australia considers any exposure unsafe, no matter how small. A particular concern is brake parts, and the possibility that a motor vehicle with asbestos pads could spray dust while “someone’s walking on a sidewalk.” (Canada imported $3.2-million worth of asbestos brake pads last year, largely from China.)
Australia’s government has proposed a strategic plan to manage the legacy of asbestos containment. Apart from further publicizing the dangers involved, it would take inventory of locations containing asbestos, develop standards for its safe removal, and fund medical research into treatments.
The country’s efforts are starting to pay off. While mesothelioma cases have not yet peaked, there has been a decline in other asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis and pleural plaque.
Canadian exports of asbestos and related products, 2004-2013
Infographic In the late 1940s, Canada was the world’s top producer of asbestos. By 2009, it ranked fifth. The country’s two remaining mines closed in 2011 but Canada continues to export asbestos products, including tiles, pipes and other building materials. Crocidolite is a type of amphibole asbestos, also known as blue asbestos. (Source: Statistics Canada - International Accounts and Trade Division)
Asbestos and related products exports in 2013
Australia’s experts in the field have long been puzzled by Canada. “It's a man-made disease. Canada should ban the use and trade of [asbestos] products in all forms and ultimately work towards safe removal and disposal from the environment,” Mr. Fary says.
Canada’s “safe-use” approach also baffles other international experts. “There have been no long-term studies showing the efficacy or safety for so-called ‘safe use’ or for a ‘safe form’ of asbestos, which are promotional terminology used by the asbestos industry,” says Dr. Lemen. “Even the smallest exposures to asbestos show an increased risk of fatal asbestos-induced disease.”
The global picture is daunting. About 125 million people around the world are currently exposed at the workplace, according to WHO estimates. More than 107,000 people die a year from asbestos-related diseases.
By its calculations, one in every three deaths from occupational cancer is caused by asbestos. The WHO recorded 92,253 mesothelioma deaths between 1994 and 2008 (noting the scale is likely underestimated) and says it expects deaths to shift to the developing world where asbestos use is rising.
An unknown number of deaths abroad are attributable to Canadian exports. As of 2009, Canada was the world’s fifth-largest producer of asbestos, after Russia, China, Kazakhstan and Brazil.
Canada’s position that asbestos can be used safely ignored the reality of its key markets, like India, where asbestos tiles, cut by hand, are a common building material, and safety regulations are little-known. Canada sent almost 70,000 tonnes of asbestos to India in 2010, worth $40-million.
Canada’s last export of raw asbestos was in November, 2011, after the Quebec mines shut down. But Canada continues to export products, such as building materials, that contain asbestos. Operations at Canada’s idled mines could resume almost immediately if the economics of competing against countries like Kazakhstan improve.