January 23, 2019

Asbestos imports rising in Canada despite health warnings

Despite rising fears of asbestos-related illnesses, imports of products containing asbestos show little sign of slowing.

According to Statistics Canada figures, imports of asbestos-related items rose to $6-million last year from $4.9-million in 2013. The bulk of these goods consisted of asbestos brake linings and pads, which hit $3.6-million in imports in 2014, a seven-year high. Other imports included raw asbestos, friction materials and some items containing crocidolite, which is considered the most dangerous form of asbestos.

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The dollar amounts may not seem like a lot of money given Canada’s overall trade, but in terms of brake pads that translates into hundreds of thousands entering the Canadian market each year. The World Health Organization and other agencies have said that all forms of asbestos are carcinogenic and the best way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop using it.

Asbestos is by far the top on-the-job killer in Canada, accounting for almost 5,000 death claims since 1996. Many victims die of mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer, though it may take 20 to 50 years after exposures to materialize. And yet Canada continues to allow imports and exports of asbestos, unlike other dozens of countries such as Australia, Japan, Sweden and Britain, which have imposed a ban.

Canada has imported more than $100-million in asbestos brake pad and linings in the past decade. In total, more than $250-million in imports of asbestos and asbestos-containing products entered the country between 2004 and 2014. Canada was also one of the world’s largest exporters of asbestos, though raw shipments stopped in 2011 after the last mines closed. Last year, this country exported $1.8-million worth of asbestos products.

A key concern about the brake pads centres on mechanics, who often use air hoses to clean car parts while replacing them, putting dangerous dust in the air. In the past decade, 61 claims for the deaths of auto, truck and bus mechanics stemming from asbestos-related diseases have been approved, according to the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada.

Brake mechanics, along with construction workers and shipyard workers, are among those most at risk of exposure to asbestos at work, according to the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. A tally by Carex Canada, a research project funded by the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, showed 4,300 people in auto repair and maintenance are exposed to asbestos in the workplace.

The federal government has long maintained a policy of “controlled use” of the mineral and Health Canada says that as long as the fibres are enclosed or tightly bound, there is no significant health risk. It’s difficult to ensure, though, that fibres stay tightly bound as materials wear out.

“It’s hard to quantify the risk, but with a known carcinogen that’s associated with cancers at extremely low levels of exposure, I just don’t think you can be too cautious on this. And it’s not like there isn’t a viable alternative. There are other brake pads out there,” says Paul Demers, a University of Toronto professor in public health and director at the Occupational Cancer Research Centre at Cancer Care Ontario.

Canada’s two main opposition parties want to see the end of asbestos use in Canada.

“We need to develop a comprehensive strategy to phase out the use of dangerous materials, especially asbestos,” Liberal MP Geoff Regan said, adding that his party wants a ban of all asbestos use in Canada. “When it comes to brake pads, there’s really no need to have these products in Canada since our manufacturers have largely replaced asbestos with safer alternatives. I can’t imagine that Canadian drivers would accept the idea that these products are being used in their cars, if they were really fully aware of the situation.”

Mr. Regan wants to see more education on the dangers of asbestos, a national registry of federal public buildings with asbestos and more monitoring of asbestos-related diseases in Canada.

Ending the use of asbestos brake pads “is an excellent place to start because brake shoes are one thing that a lot of home handymen, backyard mechanics can do on their own, so therefore you are exposing people outside the industrial setting and into the residential setting. There’s unnecessary risk,” said NDP MP Pat Martin, who has been calling for a ban for nearly two decades.

A couple of U.S. states have passed laws restricting use of brake pads with asbestos and momentum is building to limit their use among manufacturers and in imports.

That effort is going national. On Jan. 21, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Environmental Council of the States, the Brake Manufacturers Council and other industry stakeholders that will limit the use of asbestos (along with copper and other elements) in all brake pads including imports, said Bill Hanvey, executive director of the Brake Manufacturers Council, in an interview.

“We’re trying to make sure we have a level playing field because asbestos is a cheaper ingredient and the North American manufacturers have eliminated asbestos from their formulations many years ago and substituted more expensive materials to avoid using asbestos,” said Mr. Hanvey, who is based near Raleigh, N.C., and is also senior vice-president of the Automotive Aftermarket Suppliers Association.

“We want to make sure we’re not put at a competitive disadvantage by the importation of products that contain asbestos.”

Safer, made-in-Canada alternatives to asbestos are available, though they cost more. Rick Jamieson is president and chief executive officer of Guelph, Ont.-based ABS Friction, an asbestos-free brake-pad factory. He wants to see a complete asbestos ban in Canada.

“We would like to see the same legislation [as some U.S. states] so that it’s a level playing field across North America and that Canada doesn’t end up a dumping ground for asbestos brake pads,” he said. “Because if they’re going to ban them in the U.S., they’re going to go somewhere.”

Marc Brazeau, president and CEO of the Automotive Industries Association of Canada, said workers’ safety is a top priority and that the organization would not object to a ban provided the industry was given sufficient notice. “If there is a phase-out period and an opportunity for companies to react, I’m very optimistic and confident that our industry would react in an appropriate way,” he said.

Concern over brake pads has prompted Ontario’s Ministry of Labour to issue a warning. Asbestos “in aftermarket replacement brake pads poses an increased risk of asbestos-related disease for auto brake mechanics,” the ministry said in a 2013 alert.

It noted that the presence of asbestos in aftermarket brake pads “poses an increased risk of exposure to hazardous concentrations of asbestos dust during the maintenance and repair of asbestos-containing friction materials for auto brake mechanics.” It recommended employers “only use brake pads that do not contain asbestos.”

In an e-mail to the Globe, the ministry said it is “aware of and continues to be concerned about the hazard, and we are looking into what more can be done to ensure the safety of workers.”

Health Canada’s website still says asbestos poses health risks “only when fibres are present in the air that people breathe.” It does not say that all forms of asbestos are a known carcinogen nor that even low levels of exposure can be dangerous. When asked last November if it plans to revise its website, last updated in October, 2012, a spokesperson said in an e-mail that “there are no plans to update it as the health risks to asbestos have not changed and there’s nothing to add at this point.”

The department said asbestos brake pads do not pose a significant health risk to consumers. Regarding the risks to mechanics’ health in working with asbestos brake pads, Health Canada said “in the workplace, exposure associated with the use of brake pads containing asbestos could occur during installation, removal, and inspection processes if fibres become airborne.”

Continued imports of asbestos brake pads is a concern, given that most garages and body shops aren’t unionized, and subject to little regulatory oversight, says Jim Brophy, adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Windsor and former director of the Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers in Windsor and Sarnia.

“Why would we be importing it especially into operations like brakes, where the very nature of brakes is that there is a wearing down of the pad. It’s endemic to the design of the thing.”

He’s critical of Health Canada’s message that asbestos doesn’t pose a big risk if fibres don’t become airborne. “That doesn’t talk about the real world. They don’t put asbestos in a bottle and leave it on the shelves. People are actually grinding it, they’re tearing it off, they’re blowing it around. This is what you do with brake shoes and other products that have asbestos (such as pipes).”

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Asbestos imports rising in Canada despite health warnings

Asbestos registry demanded for federal public buildings

Tradespeople who say they were unknowingly exposed to asbestos while working in federal buildings say it’s time to develop a registry to let workers know what hazards may be in Canada’s public buildings.

​​Former House of Commons staff electronics technician Hugh Graham is one of a growing number of tradespeople calling for a national public building registry.

Graham worked 18 years on Parliament Hill and has since been diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease.

Graham, now 80, has pleural plaques, or scarring over his lungs, that wasn’t confirmed until a operation in Ottawa.

An April 2000 report from the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers confirmed Graham was exposed to asbestos during his time on Parliament Hill in the 1980s and 90s.

Government managers learned about the extent of asbestos in the Parliament buildings in a 1988 study, but Graham says he and his colleagues were not warned to take precautions until two years later.

Graham says he knows several people who worked on the Hill who were diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases. He and some co-workers took it upon themselves to get checked out by doctors.

Initially, there was no sign of any asbestos-related disease. In Graham’s case, the disease, which has a latency of up to 40 years, was eventually confirmed during an operation in Ottawa.

“The plaque is over both my lungs…it’s also over my diaphragm…it looks like pizza pie, all lumpy and bumpy with scar tissue. That’s what turns into mesothelioma,” said Graham, referring to the asbestos-related cancer.

He says he lives with the possibility that cancer is coming.

“There isn’t a day goes by I don’t think of my condition and asbestos,” said Graham.

NDP calls for national registry

Graham says other countries have public registries that list buildings with asbestos and doesn’t understand why Canada doesn’t have such a registry.

Currently, Saskatchewan is the only province with such a list.

In 2012, the NDP put forth a private member’s bill calling on the Canada Labour Code to be modified to call on the Ministry of Labour to maintain a registry of information about all accidents and occupational diseases at federal buildings, but it did not move past first reading.

In question period on Tuesday, NDP MP and public works critic Pat Martin renewed his party’s call for a registry.

“In the absence of a comprehensive removal program, will the minister of public works at least concede to creating and publishing a national registry of all government buildings that are contaminated with asbestos so the workers in these buildings have at least a fighting chance when they go to work?” asked Martin.

Chris Warkentin, the parliamentary secretary for the minister of public works, did not address the idea of a registry specifically but said the government is committed to making sure workers have access to safe, fair and productive workplaces.

“Our government ensures our workers can refuse any work they believe may be dangerous. Dedicated health and safety officers work diligently on a daily basis to ensure the safety of Canada’s federally regulated workers,” said Warkentin.

Asbestos present in older buildings

Up until the 1990s, buildings in Canada were often constructed with asbestos containing materials — including ductwork, concrete, insulation, ceiling and floor materials.

Denis St. Jean, the national health and safety officer for the Public Service Alliance of Canada, says it’s typical for federal buildings across Canada to contain asbestos.

– DATABASE: 16 carcinogens in Canadian workplaces

St. Jean notes this is only a problem when the asbestos is disturbed, which is often the job of the contractor or tradesperson.

“We know these buildings have asbestos. We know they were built in the years where there is high risk of exposure…There should be at least an inventory of how many of these buildings have asbestos,” said St. Jean.

A CBC investigation has revealed that while it is a worker’s right to know the hazards that might be encountered on the job, Ottawa tradesman Denis Lapointe says he had to file access to information requests to learn about the extent of his potential exposure to asbestos.

Complaints across country

Lapointe, Graham and tradespeople in Ottawa are not the only ones who say they were kept in the dark about potential exposure.

Don Garrett, a private contractor in Hope, B.C., recently filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court of British Columbia to settle his outstanding claim over exposure to asbestos while doing a job in a Public Works and Government Services building in B.C. in 2009.

Garrett says he unknowingly exposed himself, his staff members, inmates and correctional officers to asbestos over several days.

“A project in an older building where there’s a chance of having asbestos, there’s a requirement to produce a pre-construction, hazardous materials report and that should have been with the tender package,” he said.

“It wasn’t. I remember writing and asking for that two to three times,” said Garrett. He says he never got it.

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Asbestos registry demanded for federal public buildings

U of M prof diagnosed with mesothelioma speaks out over asbestos

Beth Macdonell, CTV Winnipeg

Published Friday, October 3, 2014 3:47PM CST

Last Updated Friday, October 3, 2014 6:28PM CST

A University of Manitoba professor with a rare form of cancer often linked with exposure to asbestos has a warning. Patricia Martens wants others to be aware and be safe.

Martens, 62, is a professor of health sciences at the University of Manitoba and is an Order of Canada recipient. She has travelled extensively, researching trends in health and health care.

In February 2013, she was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a cancer linked to asbestos exposure.

Martens was told she had nine to 12 months to live. She tried chemotherapy but stopped after doctors found it wasn’t working. Radiation is not possible because of the way the cancer spreads.

She doesn’t know exactly when she was exposed, but this type of cancer can form as long as 50 years after exposure.

Martens believes the asbestos exposure could have happened while studying or working on the U of M campus, but she can’t say for sure, as the cancer can take up to 50 years to show signs.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers believes at least four cases, including Martens’ one, could possibly be linked to asbestos at the University of Manitoba. The institution has many old buildings that used asbestos, said Brenda Austin Smith from the group.

The university is working to eradicate asbestos, to make the buildings safe and sends out emails to staff about the asbestos abatement project, where crews will be working to remove it and to advise people to steer clear, said Austin Smith.

Martens doesn’t plan to sue the university and isn’t bitter. Instead, she plans to make the most of the time she has left, spending time with family and warning others that asbestos is still out there.

The federal and provincial governments have information on strict rules regarding asbestos and its removal.

Martens would like to see it completely banned in Manitoba.

The University of Manitoba issued a statement Friday afternoon.

“It is very unfortunate that a University of Manitoba professor is ill and we feel for Dr. Martens and her family. It is difficult to trace the exact cause or event in such cases, but the University of Manitoba has and will continue to comply with Manitoba Health and Safety legislation to ensure a healthy and safe work environment,” it said in the statement.


U of M prof diagnosed with mesothelioma speaks out over asbestos

What to do when you find asbestos in your home

VICTORIA – Renovations can be stressful for a homeowner, especially when dealing with an older home where asbestos may be hiding under old flooring or around heating ducts.

Before Madeleine Bragg and her husband bought their 1940s home in Fernie, B.C., they had it inspected for asbestos, which was commonly mined and used for its high tolerance to heat. Roof tiles and insulation were tested and the conclusion was their new home was free of asbestos.

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Unfortunately it wasn’t until they began renovating and were ripping up the old linoleum flooring in the kitchen that they discovered their home did, in fact, have asbestos.

Pulling up the flooring revealed a second layer of linoleum that had a paper lining containing asbestos.

“I was six months pregnant. I was flipping out,” says Bragg. “I thought it was so awful and if I had known asbestos was in the house we wouldn’t have bought it, or would have paid significantly less for it.”

The couple looked into removing the asbestos themselves, but when they realized the costs of the disposal bags and having to ship it out of town to be properly discarded, they opted to have professionals do the job for them.

Mid-construction the Braggs had to leave their home to be bagged and correctly treated before work could resume.

Summer Green, owner of RemovAll Remediation Services in Victoria, says it is possible for homeowners to do a smaller job themselves if they follow proper guidelines, such as those from WorkSafeBC.

“If it was my daughter, and her husband wanted to deal with asbestos on his own, I would say wet it down, follow the approved guidelines, and they would probably be OK,” says Green.

Many of the guidelines in place for abatement and removal are meant to protect construction workers and contractors who may come into contact with asbestos on a regular basis, but homeowners should be cautious and informed when removing asbestos.

According to Green, any home built before the 1990s could contain asbestos in the insulation and drywall and around boilers and pipes.

“Older houses are often heated by boilers and hot water registers,” she says. “Those pipes were covered in asbestos, often 80 to 90 per cent asbestos. With forced air heating they used duct tape, but at that time it was asbestos tape. Any white tape you see on your ducts contains asbestos, and they don’t even bother testing it.”

Many homeowners are unaware they have asbestos in their house until they become involved in a home renovation project where testing is required for work permits.

Green says it is possible for people to have lived in a house containing asbestos for many years without any health problems because issues arise only when asbestos fibres are released into the air.

“You can go up in an attic and breathe in fibreglass insulation and it can get in your lungs, and it can cause problems, but with fibreglass insulation the fibres are straight fibres,” says Green. “But with an asbestos fibre no matter how small you make it or break it down they are constantly splitting and have a barb on them.”

Fibreglass fibres can be coughed out of someone’s lungs, but with asbestos, Green says, fibres hook into the walls of your lungs and you can’t get them out.

According to the Government of Canada, potential health problems from asbestos exposure include asbestosis (scarring of the lungs which makes it hard to breathe), mesothelioma (a cancer of the lining of the chest or abdominal cavity) and lung cancer.

The cost of removing asbestos has begun to affect not only the way homeowners proceed with renovations, but it can also affect the cost of purchasing and insuring a home.

“In real estate, inspectors are noticing asbestos in the insulation on the forced air ducts or pipes, and homeowners have to deal with it before a house is sold,” says Green.

“Mortgage companies are saying they won’t finance until the asbestos is gone, and insurance companies may not insure without a clearance letter, which can affect the price of a home.”

© The Canadian Press, 2014

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What to do when you find asbestos in your home

Asbestos forces closure of a Toronto Catholic school

A Toronto Catholic high school has been closed after air ducts tested positive for asbestos.

The testing was done following work on the swimming pool and change rooms at St. Patrick Catholic Secondary School, located in the Greenwood and Danforth Avenues area.

“We sampled the tile grout in the change rooms and it was determined that it contained about 1.5 per cent asbestos,” Corrado Maltese, co-ordinator of occupational health and safety with the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) told CityNews. “Although it’s not a lot of asbestos, it is still considered asbestos-containing and there was some concern that some of the dust in that construction area may have actually entered the ventilation of the school.”

The Ministry of Labour asked that the entire building be tested for the presence of asbestos. Four of the buildings’ 17 air ducts came back positive.

Maltese said ducts were cleaned and then as an added precaution he ordered further air quality tests to make sure none of the asbestos became airborne.

Fe de Leon, a researcher at the Canadian Environmental Law Association, says the board is taking the right steps in going above and beyond to make sure the children are safe.

“I think it’s a good start. I think, as it respects to areas where young people spend a good chunk of their days, it’s better to be cautious than not to,” she explained.

“There’s always cause for concern. The threshold for asbestos is set quite low but if you have opportunities to clean it up let’s do that.”

Students have been moved to a nearby school while the testing continues.

Asbestos in schools is nothing new. The TCDSB says 175 of their 201 buildings contain it and that any building built before 1990 likely contains some asbestos.

The TCDSB said that should the air quality testing results come back clean on Tuesday, St. Patrick Catholic Secondary School will reopen on Wednesday.

To read the TCDSB’s 2013 asbestos inspection survey click here.


Asbestos forces closure of a Toronto Catholic school