March 25, 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

Your asbestos-related questions answered

The Globe’s weekend piece about asbestos and the dangers of exposure generated many letters, e-mails, phone calls and online comments. Some readers shared stories of losing family members to asbestos-related diseases, having difficulty navigating the workers’ compensation system and being exposed to asbestos in their own workplaces and homes.

No safe use: The Canadian asbestos epidemic that Ottawa is ignoring

Canada’s embrace of the “miracle mineral” has seeded an epidemic of cancers. Yet many Canadians are still exposed to asbestos every day. Don’t look to Ottawa for help — it’s still defending an industry that, like its victims, is wasting away. Read the full story, then share your thoughts in the comments.

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Other readers had questions. Here are some answers.

I have a family member who has an asbestos-related disease. Where can I go for more information and advice?

Mesothelioma is the leading cause of work-related deaths in Canada, as measured by accepted workers’ comp claims. Yet relatively little is known about this form of cancer, which has sometimes been misdiagnosed as lung cancer. For those seeking to know more, visit the Canadian Mesothelioma Foundation website. It’s important to know there are new treatment options that can prolong peoples’ lives.

Other illnesses from asbestos exposure include other types of cancer such as lung cancer, along with asbestosis. More information can be found at the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, an advocacy and education group which is based in the U.S., but also works in Canada.

In Canada, Princess Margaret Cancer Care offers an early detection program and has a new treatment that extends the lives of mesothelioma patients.

More reading material can be found in the links at the end of this story.

I’m worried I may have been exposed in past years. What can I do?

It’s important to know the World Health Organization and other medical experts say there is no safe level or threshold, so even shorter-term exposure to can raise the risk of getting sick. And the odds also increase, exponentially, if someone is also a smoker – so one of the best things one can do to reduce risk is stop smoking.

But there’s also important context – many people have been exposed and never gotten sick. Mesothelioma cases – while rising – are still relatively rare with nowhere near the number of cases as, say, breast cancer. Some workers have toiled for years in clouds of asbestos dust, and haven’t gotten sick. It seems hard to predict who gets affected and who doesn’t.

If people are showing no symptoms, they can stick with their routine annual checkup with their family doctor.  Those who are higher risk — such as people who have pleural plaque or with known past asbestos exposure — could consider screening programs (Princess Margaret runs one).

If symptoms appear, such as shortness of breath, coughs or pain in the chest wall, patients should be seen by a doctor, who may refer them to a thoracic surgeon.

I’d thought Canada had long banned asbestos products. Is it true they’re still being used?

Asbestos was an ingredient in thousands of products in previous decades, from modelling clay to insulation.

Canada now has stricter regulations about asbestos use than in years past – but this country never banned imports or exports. Asbestos has long been used in building materials such as roof shingles, floor tiles, insulation and textured coating on ceilings. To see more examples of where it might be in the home, check out WorkSafeBC’s photos and this week’s Globe Now video.

Asbestos products continue to flow into Canada, in the form of pipes and tiles, replacement brake pads and linings, friction materials, fibre jointing and even clothing (typically used in protective gear such as firefighters’ suits).  A sample list of suspected asbestos-containing materials can be found here and here (these are U.S. sites) as well as here (a U.K. site). An Ontario list can be found here.

(We couldn’t find a full list of brand names of products that contain asbestos, but some lawyers who represent victims with mesothelioma do have catalogues).

How prevalent is asbestos in our homes, schools, hospitals and work spaces?

Short answer – we don’t know. We do know it was a common building material in Canada and in many developed nations right up until the 1990s (and in some cases, is still being used), so construction workers, contractors and do-it-yourself renovators should get materials tested by a reputable, independent lab and taking proper precautions. WorkSafeBC has advice for workers and homeowners on its site.

Saskatchewan is getting a better grasp of the presence of asbestos. The province has established a mandatory registry to alert staff and workers of where asbestos exists in public buildings. 

How can I get compensation if I have an asbestos-related disease stemming from workplace exposure?

Workers’ comp is a government-run system of no-fault compensation in Canada (where workers, in turn, give up their right to sue their employer for an injury).  Each province has its own system, such as this in Ontario and this in Alberta. Each site has information for workers looking to make a claim. An overview of workers’ comp in Canada can be found here. As our weekend story explained, the workers comp data does not give a complete picture because claims are often not filed or are unsuccessful.

All the provinces and territories (except Quebec) have a free worker advisor service to help people navigate the system. Contact information for these services (including Office of the Worker Adviser) is available here. Many workers will also be able to get help from their unions.

In some provinces, there are legal clinics which may handle workers’ compensation. In Ontario, for example, the two main ones are Injured Workers’ Consultants and Industrial Accident Victims’ Group of Ontario. There are also private bar lawyers and paralegals who represent the victims and families on a fee-for-service basis.

Is the Globe planning more coverage of Canada’s asbestos issue?

Yes. We’re looking at how asbestos products are currently being used and other follow-up ideas over the coming weeks and months. Suggestions and feedback welcome:

Follow on Twitter: @taviagrant

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Your asbestos-related questions answered