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  • Writer's pictureTrieste Reading

How the perception of asbestos changed from popular building material to workplace killer

Asbestos is the leading cause of workplace deaths in Canada.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that can be found in trace amounts throughout the world. Asbestos fibres are microscopic (roughly 0.02 um, the diameter of a human hair), which make them difficult to detect with the naked eye and easily inhaled. Repeated exposure to asbestos can be very harmful as it has been identified as a human carcinogen which is a substance that causes cancer.

Asbestos wasn't always considered to be a hazard. CBC News notes that, "it was called the "magic mineral" and was touted as Canadian Gold - a unique resource that was going to bring a country wealth and prosperity." Asbestos is recognized for being fire retardant, extremely durable and resistant to chemical erosion which made it a popular material. The thin needle-like fibre had many uses and inventors were tripping over each other to find more: it was woven into clothes, building insulation and coffee pots. CBC News writes that it was even mixed in with children's play dough, and at one point, had roughly 4,000 other applications.

The first province to mine asbestos in Canada was Quebec in the 1870s; however, it wasn't until the 1920s that asbestos was believed to be making workers ill and causing dust disease of the lungs. In 1949, Quebec miners from the Asbestos and Thetford mines embark on a strike to improve their working conditions and wages. Then in 1984, The Ontario Royal Commission suggests a ban on cricodolite and amosite, the two most commonly used asbestos fibre. Nearly twenty years later, in 2002, The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) releases a statement urging the inclusion of all forms of asbestos into an international list of chemicals that would fall under trade controls. 

Global News writes that while asbestos was no longer used in building materials after 1990, Canada continues to export the mineral. This caused the Canadian Cancer Society, together with 25 other health organizations, to address a letter to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty in 2011, which urges the government to stop its funding of the Chrysotile Institute and to end the export of asbestos to developing countries. 

According to The Globe and Mail, since 1996 almost 5,000 approved death claims stem from asbestos exposure, which makes it the top source of workplace death in Canada. The 368 asbestos death claims in 2013 represent a higher number than fatalities from highway accidents, fires and chemical exposures combined. 

Until 2011, Canada was one of the world's largest exporters of asbestos. Health experts warn that long latency periods mean deaths from asbestos will continue to climb. Asbestos-related diseases have a long latency period of typically 20 to 40 years. The most common asbestos-related diseases are mesothelioma, which is an aggressive form of cancer and asbestosis, which is a fibrosis of the lungs. Jim Brophy, former director of the Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers, notes that "there's some misconception that [Canada] banned it - and we haven't," he continues saying that Canada now has "an enormous public-health tragedy, disaster on our hands."

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