Canada and Asbestos Today – A Guest Post from Kathleen Ruff

The following post first appeared on the Canadian Meso blog, which is a part of the Canadian Cancer Survivor Network‘s recent project committed to providing survivors, patients, families, and the wider public with information and news about asbestos and asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma. 

Now that Canada no longer mines or exports asbestos, what are the next steps we should be taking as a country?

The last two asbestos mines in Quebec have finally shut down after more than a century of operation. Other asbestos mines in BC, Ontario, Newfoundland and the Yukon closed down years ago.

Finally, Canada, which, for the past century, was a leading world producer, exporter and promoter of asbestos, is no longer in the asbestos business.

But much remains to be done. While the asbestos mines have shut down for economic reasons, the Canadian government continues to support asbestos use, continues to fail to protect Canadians from asbestos harm and continues to fail to provide assistance and support to asbestos victims and their families.

Shockingly, the Canadian government continues to deny the science on asbestos and, instead, supports the discredited propaganda of the asbestos industry, which claims, against all the evidence, that asbestos can be safely used.

The Harper government opposes the recommendation of the World Health Organization that all use of asbestos should stop. And the government has rejected requests from the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Cancer Society, the Canadian Public Health Association and many other health, labour and public interest organisations that the Canadian government take action to stop the use of asbestos in Canada and to protect Canadians from asbestos harm.

Over 50 countries have banned asbestos, including all the countries of the European Union. Because Canada has not banned asbestos, products are allowed to be imported into Canada that contain asbestos. Millions of dollars’ worth of asbestos-containing car brakes, for example, are imported into Canada each year. Over past decades, many auto mechanics have died from having been exposed to asbestos when grinding and repairing brakes. This will continue to happen, as long as Canada does not ban asbestos.

The Canadian government needs to show leadership on the threat to the health of Canadians posed by asbestos that was placed in thousands of homes and buildings decades ago. Construction workers, carpenters and electricians are especially at risk when they renovate or demolish old buildings.

Many people cannot afford to hire trained professionals to do renovation work on their homes and so they do the work themselves. They usually lack protective equipment and training regarding asbestos and are thus at risk of being exposed to asbestos fibres, as they are unlikely to even recognize it in the walls, ceilings and floors they are cutting into.

While the Canadian government is failing to protect Canadians from asbestos harm, it is spending millions of taxpayers’ dollars on removing asbestos from the Parliament Buildings and from the Prime Minister’s residence. Apparently, the government believes that members of Parliament and the Prime Minister should be protected from asbestos harm.

Many Canadians think, wrongly, that asbestos is a problem of the past. Other countries have national programs to inform and educate the public about the continuing dangers of asbestos. But not Canada. This, in spite of the fact that, every day, more Canadians fall victim to an asbestos-related disease.

When Canadian workers are repeatedly exposed to asbestos because of wanton negligence on the part of their employers, the Canadian government does not lay charges of criminal negligence against the employers, even though the Criminal Code has a provision allowing for such charges to be laid. Thus there are no serious repercussions. The employer may have to pay a fine under occupational health regulations, but, when an employer repeatedly pays the fine and continues to expose workers to asbestos harm, clearly the fine is not a sufficient deterrent.

Because the last asbestos mines have been closed down,Canadians can be glad that we are no longer exporting asbestos to harm people overseas.

The Canadian government should, however, set up reparation funds in those countries to which, to our financial profit, we exported huge amounts of asbestos for decades. These funds would help pay for health care and compensation to all those whose lives will be harmed and help pay for removing asbestos from schools, homes and buildings overseas once those buildings begin to deteriorate and threaten to release asbestos fibres into the air.

As an immediate priority, the Canadian government should take action to protect Canadians from further asbestos harm by banning asbestos, by setting up an asbestos registry and initiating a national program to inform Canadians of the ongoing threat posed by asbestos already placed in so many buildings.

Furthermore, the Canadian government should take responsibility for the asbestos the government itself placed in homes on First Nations reserves and in homes on military bases. The government has washed its hands of this problem and the deaths it has caused.

It is time for this callous and irresponsible conduct to stop.

Kathleen Ruff is founder of the human rights website and author of Exporting Harm: How Canada markets asbestos to thedeveloping world

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