Asbestos History and Ban in Canada

MAAC StaffJune 20, 2016

Once called the “miracle mineral,” asbestos has been used for almost 150 years in an abundance of products. Because of its invincibility against fire, heat, chemicals, and water damage, it is one of the most effective products for use in such items as fireproofing materials, furnace and heating systems, tiles, siding, and even fabrics. Unfortunately, the side effects of breathing in the particles that fill the air when the asbestos is disturbed is so destructive to those exposed to it, that a full ban on this product is finally being considered in Canada, much to the relief of all the country’s citizens.

Canada first began mining asbestos in the 1870s, and so began the economic boom that came along with it. For 50 years, asbestos was mined, manufactured, and sold in a multitude of products used all over the country, and the rest of the world. Then, in the 1920s, the first concerns about the “dust disease” infecting many of the workers who mined or manufactured the products containing asbestos were raised. Numerous studies were done over the years, all of which confirmed the fact that asbestos was causing such diseases as mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.

Unfortunately, the Canadian government ignored the threat of these horribly fatal diseases in its citizens and workers, and even refused to add chrysotile asbestos to the Rotterdam Convention’s hazardous substances list. This has only recently been changed, and Canada’s government has finally admitted the real dangers for those exposed to asbestos, which experts have been parading in front of them for decades.

Why did Canada wait so long to consider an asbestos ban?

Many people wonder what the holdup was in the Canadian government’s admission of this fact.  Like so many other strange or life-threatening decisions made by those in power, the answer has to do with money. Because almost half of the world’s asbestos production is located in Quebec, Canada has historically been the leading producer and supplier of materials containing asbestos. It was a $100 million industry that the country could not afford to lose.

There is also the fact that admitting asbestos is more dangerous than they have recently stated opens the Canadian government up to serious criticism and even the possibility of numerous lawsuits. Those two reasons are why the country fought so hard to keep asbestos off hazardous substances lists, and why they failed to even acknowledge the many reports from Health Canada and The Canadian Cancer Society that were brought to their attention.

Though the government did ban products made from amphibole asbestos in the 1980s, products using chrysotile asbestos were still being manufactured until the last asbestos mine in the country closed in 2012. Now, though Canada is no longer exporting asbestos, the importing of numerous products containing it has continued. The main asbestos products still flowing into the country include construction materials, such as piping and some types of flooring, and automotive parts like brake pads and transmission parts, just to name a few.

An asbestos ban in Canada is imminent

Much to the relief of Canadian workers and residents, a new vision is on the rise concerning asbestos in the country. On April 1, 2016, Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) has taken the safety concerns of all Canadians into consideration. They have reviewed the many products used during the construction and renovation of their various buildings, and have finally realized that there are numerous safer products available that can replace those containing asbestos. They have put Asbestos Management Plans in place to ensure that no harm will come to those working in or on their existing buildings. They have even gone so far as to either remove or encapsulate any areas of their buildings that contain asbestos, to ensure the safety of all their workers, or those involved in renovation projects. The PSPC is also performing yearly inspections on any materials that contain asbestos in these buildings, to be sure no deterioration has taken place.

Then, in May 2016, Canadians received the news they have been waiting almost a century for. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated that the country is finally committed to a complete ban on asbestos. This is the first time the federal government has made any such statement to the Canadian public. The news was revealed at the country’s building trades union policy conference. The PM has not only confirmed the fact that a commitment to a ban is under review by his government, but that they will also be joining the PSPC in creating a registry of not just government buildings, but all buildings that contain asbestos.

Though making a commitment to this ban is what the country has been hoping for, there is no set timeline for how this ban will go forward. The Canadian Labour congress would like to see official plans announced by summertime and have even offered a comprehensive plan on how this ban could be implemented. The first step is to pass legislation on asbestos, including a ban on the use, importation, and exportation of the mineral. The registry of all buildings containing it is also an important step.

The government will also need to deal with the numerous asbestos-related diseases that have long been ignored, which means monitoring those who have worked with these materials and offering treatments to those suffering from such diseases. The removal of asbestos from buildings, and the proper and safe disposal methods must also be addressed, so the discarded materials do not contaminate any food and water supplies and cause further damage.  Though Canadians would like these measures in place as soon as possible, in reality, this process may take several years.

Canada is not the only country moving forward with a potential asbestos ban.  In the United States, this may also be on the horizon, thanks to the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act that recently passed Congress. This new bill states that the Environmental Protection Agency is required to restrict or prohibit any use, manufacture, distribution, processing and disposal of any chemicals that have not met with their safety standards.  Since asbestos has proven to be extremely harmful in the past, it is almost guaranteed to fail the EPA’s safety tests as well.

Then, maybe this toxic “magic mineral” will finally be replaced with safer products, and the health of all U.S. citizens will no longer be at risk from its deadly fibers.