Dozens of groups are pressing Ottawa to join more than 50 countries in banning asbestos, a move the Liberal Party supported while in opposition.
A letter sent to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this month notes that Canada still allows the use of asbestos and lacks a comprehensive strategy to phase out the substance or to promote safe substitutes.
As reported by the Globe and Mail, the Canadian Cancer Society also sent a letter to the government calling for a nationwide ban on all asbestos products, a rare step for the country’s largest national health charity.
“It’s time to send a clear message and establish clear policy to end asbestos, end any confusion about its dangers, any confusion about the toll it’s taken, and any debate there is about a mythical ‘safe’ exposure level, and most importantly, [end] the exposure of Canadian workers and families to this potentially deadly substance,” said Gabriel Miller, director of public issues at the Canadian Cancer Society.
In an e-mailed statement, Health Canada said it will carefully consider whether further controls of asbestos are necessary, in addition to the measures the government has in place to protect Canadians from exposure.
Adding to a sense of urgency is the federal government’s plans to boost spending on infrastructure. Those plans raise concerns that asbestos in pipes, cement or other building materials could wind up in new construction.
Backed by nurses’ associations, building trades councils, unions and some city councils, the letter to the Prime Minister makes 11 recommendations, among them: passing legislation that bans the use of asbestos; prohibiting the use of asbestos-containing materials in federal infrastructure projects; and ensuring safer disposal and creating a national registry of asbestos exposure locations and diseases. It also wants to see a broad public-health response to asbestos diseases.
The World Health Organization says all types of asbestos cause lung cancer, mesothelioma and other types of cancers along with asbestosis. It says the most efficient way to eliminate these diseases is to stop the use of asbestos.
But Statistics Canada trade data show asbestos-related imports rose to a six-year high last year – $8.3-million in 2015 from $6-million a year earlier. About half of that was in brake pads and linings, while this country also imported raw asbestos, sheets and pipes, clothing and fabricated products. Exports have markedly declined, but Canada still exported $1.2-million to other countries in clothing, building materials and fabricated products.
Asbestos is the top on-the-job killer in Canada. New cases of mesothelioma – a cancer caused almost exclusively by asbestos exposure – have more than doubled in the past two decades. Each year, more than 2,000 people are diagnosed with asbestos cancers and other diseases, according to Cancer Care Ontario. About 150,000 Canadian workers are exposed to asbestos in their workplaces, Carex Canada estimates, among them construction workers and contractors, mechanics, shipbuilders and engineers.
Canada was once one of the world’s top producers of asbestos, and shut its last mine in 2011. The federal government in the past had defended the industry and maintained a position of “safe and controlled use,” a stand that was harshly criticized by doctors, scientists, advocates and those who have been affected by asbestos-related diseases. Countries including Australia, Germany and Britain have banned the mineral.
The number of new mesothelioma cases rose to a record 580 in 2013, according to Statscan. Mesothelioma has a long latency period, of 10 to 50 years, and researchers expect new cases will continue to climb.
Asbestos was the most common source in workplace death claims in 2014, cited in 388 cases, most-recent data from the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada show. In that year, mesothelioma was the No. 1 cause of death in accepted fatality claims.