The government of Canada has announced that it will be introducing a comprehensive ban on the use, production, and export of asbestos, the cancer-causing mineral that until recently was a commonly used building material. The substance has already been banned in around 50 countries worldwide, prompting Health Minister Jane Philpott to admit that the move toward a comprehensive asbestos ban is “long overdue.”
Prior to 1990, asbestos was commonly used for insulation and fireproofing buildings because of its durability and fire-resistant properties. If left undisturbed, asbestos is generally harmless; however, when the fibres are disturbed (for example, during renovations or construction), they can become airborne and compromise the air quality.
When asbestos fibres that have been released into the air are inhaled into the lungs, they can cause scarring and tissue damage, often resulting in a deadly type of cancer known as mesothelioma or other chronic lung conditions. Effects of asbestos exposure are rarely immediate, taking 15-40 years after exposure to come into full effect. The time between exposure and symptom development is called the latency period. Mesothelioma’s lengthy latency period is one of the reasons that Canada is now seeing a sharp rise in asbestos-related deaths despite the fact that use of and exposure to the substance peaked in the 1980s and has declined sharply since then. Asbestos exposure remains the most common cause of work-related deaths, accounting for about 1/3 of all workplace fatalities.
Asbestos in Canada
Until recently, Canada was one of the largest exporters of asbestos in the world thanks to its rich natural deposits of asbestos in Quebec, British Columbia, Newfoundland, and the Yukon. Reports about the adverse health effects of the mineral began to emerge as early as 1920, but were repressed by company executives who stood to lose profits if these reports became common knowledge.
Canadian governments have long been resistant to banning the substance, even offering loans to Quebec asbestos mines so they could continue their stunted operations in 2012 (these loans were later cancelled after a change in provincial government). Today, asbestos continues to be exported from Canada to developing countries like India, Thailand, and Bangladesh, and until early in 2016 had also continued to be used in the construction of new government buildings despite widespread knowledge of its carcinogenic effects.
Looking Toward an Asbestos-Free Future
Workplace health advocates hope that this long overdue ban will improve the safety and health of workers in high risk occupations and protect developing countries from the harmful effects of the substance. With the proposal to ban asbestos, Canada joins the ranks of nations across the world who have stood against the use of harmful substances in the workplace, and at long last will acknowledge that the health and longevity of Canadians is our most urgent priority.
If you’ve been exposed to asbestos, it is essential to monitor your lung health and undergo regular screenings. Click here for more information.