Massive call for asbestos ban in Canada as new data show it's still No. 1 killer of workers

The open pit of the now closed Jeffrey mine in Asbestos, Que is seen in a 1955 photograph. Photo from the Canadian Press
The open pit of the now closed Jeffrey mine in Asbestos, Que is seen in a 1955 photograph. Photo from the Canadian Press

A letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, signed by more than 60 organizations and countless doctors and those who have lost loved ones to cancer, made an impassioned plea for an immediate ban on asbestos.

The letter, provided to The Globe and Mail, was signed by 68 groups, including the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario and the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, as well as doctors, scientists, professors and families who lost loved ones to asbestos-related diseases. They urged for a ban and establishment of an expert panel to review how the substance — primarily used in insulation — should be disposed of and managed.

“I don’t know what the hold up is,” Sheri Benson, NDP MP for Saskatoon West, told Yahoo Canada News. “It’s pretty well banned by almost all OECD countries. You know, most people I’ve spoken to in their 20s actually think it’s already been banned. It should be.”

(Along with Canada, the U.S. and Mexico are the OECD hold outs on banning the substance.)

Benson tabled a private member’s bill in mid-November that would prohibit the production, sale, use, or import of asbestos and any products containing asbestos.

The prime minister pledged in May that his party was committed to banning asbestos.

“We’ve actually made the commitment that we are moving forward on a ban,” Trudeau said while speaking at a trade union policy conference. “We know that its impact on workers far outweighs any benefits that it might provide.”

Benson said she waited for the government to introduce its bill.

“But we heard nothing in the summer and into the fall, so I decided to push it and introduce the bill.”

In response to emailed questions to Science Minister Kirsty Duncan about plans to move the idea forward, officials repeated Wednesday the government is “committed to moving forward” with the ban and will make a decision “in the near future.”

“The Minister of Science is taking a government-wide approach in this matter and is working in collaboration with her colleagues to review the government’s strategy on asbestos … Further action the government takes to enact the ban will be grounded in science and evidence-based decision making,” the statement read in part.

New data shows asbestos is still the No. 1 killer of of Canadian workers by far. The Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada‘s data points a finger at asbestos as the cause of death in 367 claims in 2015. Since 1996, there have been 5,614 recorded work-related deaths from asbestos, which causes a specific type of lung cancer called mesothelioma.

The last asbestos mine in Canada, located in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, was shuttered in 2012. More than 50 countries including many in Europe, Australia and Japan have banned it.

Benson has a personal connection to the bill. Her friend, Howard Willem, passed away from mesothelioma. He had been a government inspector of dairy barns and hive operations — checking buildings and pipes. The two met before Benson got into politics, when she headed the local United Way where Willem often volunteered.

Willem’s family was key in getting Saskatchewan to be the first province, in 2013, to have an asbestos building registry.

He died before the federal bill was introduced.

“The problem is, you breathe in one fibre … and then 20 years later you develop this cancer,” said Benson. “In order for workers to apply for worker’s compensation, they need to know if the buildings they worked in had asbestos.”

There is a registry of federal buildings that contain asbestos. It was only created this fall after a CBC report discovered asbestos was still being used in new federal government construction. As a result, Judy Foote, the minister of public services and procurement, announced in February she would make a review to make sure asbestos would not be used in future projects.

The Canadian Mesothelioma Foundation says there are 500 new cases of the cancer every year in the country.

“I want to keep this in front of the government. I have asked the prime minister and the Ministry of Labour many times to tell me if they have a timeline. Nothing.”

Benson said there is no economic impetus to keep asbestos in the country. There are asbestos-free alternatives for products, like insulation and brake pads, that contain the substance.

“As long as it’s contained it doesn’t pose a hazard so anyone with a home won’t be required to rip it out.”

Benson says with the kind of push this letter has, and the publicity around it, she’s hoping the Liberals will get around to their promise.

“Parliament sits for another week and a couple of days this year,” she said. “I’m hoping for a Christmas gift.”

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