Phasing Out Asbestos in the Workplace


Canada has a long and storied association with asbestos use.

The asbestos mining industry quickly became an intrinsic part of the country’s economy, and its effects are still largely felt to this day. Once affectionately referred to as ‘Canadian white gold,’ the naturally-sourced mineral was discovered in Quebec, which quickly became one of the major asbestos production hubs in the world.

It eventually became apparent that exposure to this mineral resulted in dangerous health complications, including a number of cancers like mesothelioma, which is notable for its low survival rate. Despite decades of workers falling ill from their time in mines and factories, Canada only recently began taking steps to phase out asbestos. The government has proposed a ban on importing, selling, exporting, and using the toxin.

Timeline of Asbestos in Canada:

  • 1850: Asbestos is discovered in Thetford, Quebec
  • 1876-79 – Two major mines – Thetford Mine and The Jeffrey Mine, are established
  • 1880- Canada begins exporting asbestos
  • 1920 – Health risks associated with asbestos begin being studied
  • 1973 – Peak asbestos exports reach 1.7 million tonnes
  • 1980s – Global demand for asbestos begin to drop due to health concerns
  • 2006 – The International Labour Organization and the World Health Organization move to ban asbestos worldwide at the Rotterdam Convention – Canada vetoes
  • 2011 – The Jeffrey Mine is shut down
  • 2016 – Canada announces ban on manufacture and use of asbestos to begin in 2018

Working with Asbestos

Asbestos has been named the main cause of work-related deaths in Canada. According to Carex Canada, 152,000 workers are exposed to asbestos on the job each year. This can impact a wide array of professions throughout the construction and trade industries.

Remediation/Waste Management

Asbestos is one of many toxic substances that remediation workers may encounter in their day-to-day work. Handling debris from home renovations or construction sites can be hazardous to health. Unfortunately, many workers are ill-equipped and do not have the necessary protection or resources to handle asbestos. The toxin is not exclusive to building materials, and can also be found in consumer goods like makeup, crockpots, and crayons. When discarded or thrown out, these good can be damaged and provide opportunity for exposure in those handling rubbish disposal.

Construction

Since asbestos is often found in older buildings and homes, construction workers and renovators are often at risk for exposure on the job. As an additive to a number of building materials, including insulation, piping, siding, and flooring, asbestos can be found just about anywhere in a building. Pre-existing asbestos becomes dangerous with age or damage, when the material is disturbed during remodel projects. Construction workers may not always be equipped to handle asbestos if they are unaware of its presence. Due to the nature of the mineral’s fibers, asbestos can be invisible to the naked eye and cling to all forms of clothing or exposed skin.

Trade Workers – Firefighters

Some varieties of trade workers, including firefighters, commonly come in contact with asbestos. Firefighters work with damaged buildings that may contain asbestos, allowing for airborne exposure while handling live fires. Asbestos fibers can easily spread through fire-induced smoke, providing a greater opportunity for exposure. Although these professionals often wear protective clothing and gear, fibers are known to cling to outerwear, making it possible to track them throughout the workplace and into the home. This heightens the risk of families experiencing secondary exposure to asbestos.

Auto Repair

Asbestos products also have a home in the automotive industry. The toxin was commonly used in vehicle materials like brake pads, linings, clutches, and gaskets. When mechanics repair or replace certain parts of vehicles, they are at risk for asbestos exposure. Auto repair workers are often not equipped to protect themselves from asbestos, as they typically only wear respiratory protection or gloves when handling specific substances like noxious paints or solvents.

The Economic Impact

Aside from the obvious health concerns, using asbestos can result in a hefty expense for a nation down the line. As cases of asbestos related disease increase, viable members of the workforce are unable to work and contribute to the country’s GDP, while adding to national healthcare expenses. In the 427 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed in 2011, these patients accumulated $23.2 million in health care expenses, $117.8 million from a loss of productivity, and $36.8 million in insurance costs, according to a study by the Institute of W ork & Health.

The Canadian government estimates that just one case of mesothelioma or lung cancer will cost the nation healthcare system upwards of $1 million. Caring for asbestos disease patients puts a strain on the economy, in addition to leaving the public susceptible to life-threatening health conditions.

Impact of Sustainability

As a country that based a sizable portion of its industry the mineral, it can be difficult to imagine an asbestos-free Canada. However, it has become increasingly apparent that this toxic material is doing more harm than good. Replacing asbestos with other healthier, and environmentally friendly, options can benefit public health, as well as environmental health.

Switching over to energy efficient and low emission industries will naturally cut back on harmful substance use, stimulating the economy in different ways. Investing in sustainable industries will create new jobs, while ensuring the workforce remains healthy and less-susceptible to occupational diseases.

Green industries can help to lower pollution levels brought on by harmful industrial emissions. This includes bad ozone, CO2, particle pollutants, and smog, all of which are known to negatively impact public health. Improving air quality will help to combat climate change, cutting back on pollutants that contribute to the greenhouse effect.

A Toxin-free Future

The global history of asbestos use enforces the importance of taking steps towards sustainability as soon as possible. Even countries that have long since banned use of the carcinogen will continue to see the effects of its use for decades. Nations should work to continually phase out hazardous substances that are proven to negatively impact health.

Bringing awareness to the toxicity of certain substances and encouraging research into healthier and safer options will encourage action on a policy level, setting and upholding standards for public health. Banning asbestos in Canada will bring the country and the rest of the world one step closer to an eco-friendly and sustainable future.

Credit: Emily Walsh on behalf of www.mesothelioma.com

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