This past Labour Day, Canadian Labour of Congress president Hassan Yussuff celebrated union gains, highlighted current workplace challenges, including precarious work – and repeated the call for a ban on asbestos.
Almost 152,000 Canadian workers are exposed in their jobs to asbestos – and more workers in Ontario than in any other province. It remains the leading cause of work-related death with, according to Cancer Care Ontario, more than2,000 people diagnosed annually with asbestos cancer and other related diseases. While workers’ compensation boards have accepted over 5,700 claims since 1996 for asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma, asbestosis, those numbers greatly underestimate the true extent of the occupational disease. The long latency period (15 to 50 years) between initial exposure and development of asbestos-related diseases has resulted in many occurrences going unreported or failing to be properly identified as work-related. (Addressing the issue of underreporting, an Ontario project in progress – “Making the Link” – aims to identify workers with lung cancer or mesothelioma who may have been exposed to asbestos and assist them with filing for compensation)
The burden of asbestos
For workers exposed in industries that handled asbestos or used asbestos in their process in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, symptoms of this disease continue to surface with devastating personal impact on workers and their families. There is also a broader economic burden: a recent Institute for Work & Health study led by IWH senior scientist Emile Tompa has estimated health care, work-related and quality of life costs of newly-diagnosed cases of mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer in Canada in 2011. The study (which excluded cancers caused by secondhand exposure to asbestos) found the cost to Canadian society of new cases to be at least $1.9 billion per year, with an average cost per case of $818,000.
The cost of inaction?
Canada and the U.S. remain the only two industrial countries not to ban asbestos, notwithstanding the Liberal government’s recent statements on “reviewing its strategy on asbestos, including a potential ban”. Health Canada has revised its position on chrysotile asbestos as a safer product, though that industry continues to promote misleading information.
Asbestos imports have risen in recent years (almost doubling from $4.7 million in 2011 to $8.2 million in 2015 – chart) and safe management of asbestos in homes and buildings continues to be a challenge. While Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and B.C. have created registries for exposures or buildings containing asbestos, the call for a nation-wide registry of exposure locations and diseases has not yet been answered.
“Probably millions of people will be saved because Canada is not exporting asbestos anymore… But Canadians still aren’t safe. We don’t have a registry. We don’t know where it is. And the fact they are still using this stuff to build hospitals blows my mind … So there is still a lot more work to be done.” (Stephen Staples, Rideau Institute)
- Occupational Cancer Research Centre. 2017. Asbestos: Burden of Occupational Cancer in Ontario. Toronto: OCRC (updated)
- Ban Asbestos Canada (website)
- The Globe and Mail (online). “Topic: Asbestos”
- Dummer, Trevor & Carolyn Gotay. 2015 July 14. “Asbestos in Canada: Time to Change our Legacy.” CMAJ 187(10)