Asbestos exposure is the single largest occupational killer in Canada, accounting for more than a third of total workplace death claims approved in 2013 and nearly a third since 1996 (The Globe and Mail, 2014). The 368 death claims last year alone represent a higher number than fatalities from highway accidents, fires and chemical exposures combined.
Since 1996, almost 5,000 approved death claims stem from asbestos exposure, making it by far the top source of workplace death in Canada.
Canada was one of the world’s largest exporters of asbestos for decades, until 2011, when the last mine in Quebec closed. The legacy of the mineral still remains as it was widely used in everything from attic insulation to modelling clay in schools and car parts and in a variety of construction materials such as cement, tiles and shingles. Health experts warn long latency periods mean deaths from asbestos will climb further.
In Australia, which banned asbestos in 2003, asbestos-related diseases continue to climb. The “responsible public-health action would be to ban the use of asbestos in Canada and other countries and replace it with substitutes,” said Dr. Soskolne, who is also chair of the International Joint Policy Committee of the Societies of Epidemiology, adding that there is “no demonstrated safe way to use it in Canada.”
Asbestos-related diseases have a long latency period of typically 20 to 40 years. Many victims die of mesothelioma, an aggressive form of cancer caused almost exclusively by exposure to asbestos, and asbestosis, a fibrosis of the lungs.
The Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada has shown that in 2013 the single greatest cause of death was mesothelioma, with 193 fatalities. Asbestosis was a factor in 82 deaths.
“There’s some misconception that we banned it – and we haven’t,” said Jim Brophy, former director of the Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers in both Windsor and Sarnia. Canada now has “an enormous public-health tragedy, disaster on our hands.”
All commercial forms of asbestos including chrysotile, the type formerly mined and most commonly used in Canada, are classified as carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Its evidence shows there is no “safe” form of asbestos nor a threshold that it considers safe.
The agency’s position is at odds with Health Canada, whose website continues to play down the risks of asbestos exposure. It never clearly states that all forms of asbestos cause cancer, but rather that chrysotile asbestos is “less potent” than other forms and that there “is no significant health risk” if the fibres are enclosed or tightly bound.
Britain’s national regulator for workplace health and safety informs its citizens that asbestos causes about 5,000 deaths per year – but there is no comparable information on Health Canada’s site. Health has no plans to update its website, last revised in 2012.
And while the World Health Organization bluntly says “all types of asbestos cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, cancer of the larynx and ovary, and asbestosis,” Health Canada still says asbestos fibres “can potentially” cause asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer “when inhaled in significant quantities.” The potential link between exposure to asbestos and other types of cancers “is less clear,” it adds.
The workers’ compensation numbers don’t fully capture the total number of fatalities in Canada as not everyone is covered by workers’ compensation and not every claim is successful. Separate Statistics Canada data show almost 4,000 people died of mesothelioma alone in the decade to 2011.
Heidi von Palleske says the numbers also don’t capture wives and children who have been affected. She calls herself an asbestos orphan – her father died in 2007, with asbestosis and lung and prostate cancer. He was a former worker at a plant run which made asbestos-fibre products. Her mother, who shook out and washed her husband’s clothes for years, died of mesothelioma in 2011 and Ms. von Palleske’s sister and brother have since been diagnosed with pleural plaque (a calcification of the lungs).
“It’s inexcusable,” said Ms. von Palleske. She wants to see a ban and better supports for families affected by workplace exposure.
About 152,000 workers in Canada are currently exposed to asbestos, according to Carex Canada, a research project funded by the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer. The five largest groups are specialty-trade contractors, building construction, auto repairs and maintenance, ship and boat building and remediation and waste management.
If you or a family member have been affected by asbestos exposure, please contact us today on 0800 294 3065 or talk to us on live chat where we will be happy to answer any questions that you may have.