April 1-7 marks National Asbestos Awareness Week in the United States. With National Day of Mourning approaching (April 28th), it is a timely reminder that asbestos is far and away the leading cause of occupational death in Canada, accounting for 2,268 deaths (990 in Ontario) recognized in compensation claims between 2007-2012, (for further detailed trends see “No Safe Use” infographics).
The 2013 Del Bianco/Demers study reports the number of accepted claims for mesothelioma alone in Canada rose 216.4% between 1997 and 2010, with 7 in 10 accepted claims for occupational cancer deaths (the majority from Ontario) caused by asbestos exposure. Lambton County is still mesothelioma capital of the province, according to Ontario Cancer Registry data.
Yet the true scope of this “invisible epidemic” is much greater. Mesothelioma, like other asbestos-related diseases (asbestosis, lung cancer, pleural plaques), has a long-latency period of 20 to 50 years between initial exposure and the appearance of symptoms. According to a recent international overview, in industrialized countries the peak of asbestos-related diseases will occur 2015-2030. In Canada, three decades after the report of the Royal Commission on Matters of Health and Safety Arising from the Use of Asbestos in Ontario, that peak will be delayed because, despite the urging of the major medical and public health organizations, controlled usage is still permitted, as is export of asbestos (to emerging economies where the epidemic is gaining strength).
The real burden is also underestimated and under-reported because many cases remain undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, despite recent improvements in detection and medical education on occupational health exposure. Dr Demers estimates that currently in Canada still only about half of the eligible mesothelioma cases are filed with the workers’ compensation boards. This failure to file can also reflect an incorrect belief by some workers that it was an unknown hazard at the time of their exposure so no-one is at fault.
Workers and the general population continue to be exposed – asbestos is still found in schools, hospitals, homes, brake linings, building materials. As CBC News reported last month on dangers for workers exposed during asbestos removal on Parliament Hill, Saskatchewan has the country’s only registry for asbestos contamination in public building.
Organizations such as Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW), the Occupational Cancer Research Centre, the Canadian Mesothelioma Foundation, labour unions (including the OFL’s Occupational Disability Response Team) work to raise awareness on exposure and rights so those with asbestos-related cancer are identified – and file a claim for workers’ compensation.
- Vainio, H. 2015. “Epidemics of asbestos-related diseases – something old, something new.” Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Heath 41(1):1-4
- Grant, Tavia. 2014 June 14. “Special report: No Safe Use: The Canadian Asbestos Epidemic that Ottawa is Ignoring.” The Globe and Mail (and Dec. 15, 2014 follow-up)
- Del Bianco, Ann and Paul A. Demers. 2013, Aug. 8. “Trends in Compensation for Deaths from Occupational Cancer in Canada: A Descriptive Study.” CMAJ Open (3):E1-E6
- Lippel, K. 2010. Workers’ Compensation for Asbestos Related Disease in Five Canadian Provinces. Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers and Canadian Partnership Against Cancer
- The 1984 Report of the Royal Commission on Matters of Health and Safety Arising from the Use of Asbestos in Ontario, transcripts and selected submissions (including those of the Asbestos Victims’ Group of Ontario, led by Eddie Cauchi) are available in the IWC Library