When Paul Demers took industrial hygiene training in the 1980s he thought asbestos was a thing of the past, but 30 years later it remains the leading cause of workplace deaths in Canada.
An epidemiologist and director of the Occupational Cancer Research Centre in Ontario, Demers said the asbestos ban that was enacted in 2018 is a good first step, but will have little impact on the risks still facing workers today.
“You can’t see asbestos in the air,” he said. “You’ve got to know whether it’s there or not.”
That’s why Demers and other advocates are now calling on workplaces and governments across the country to move beyond the ban and focus on an important next step: prevention.
Although the use of asbestos in Canada dropped dramatically in the mid 1970s, more than 150,000 Canadians still encounter the carcinogen in the workplace every year according to Demers, who presented at a WorkSafe Saskatchewan event Monday morning in Regina.
Schools build in the mid-1970s or earlier will have substantial amounts of asbestos, which will cause problems for “some time,” he said, and other public and commercial buildings and even some homes pose similar risks.
“I think that the highest-exposed people are going to be maintenance workers and things like that in many of these buildings,” said Demers.
The two most common asbestos-related cancers are mesothelioma and lung cancer, both respiratory cancers. There are over 500 new cases of mesothelioma diagnosed in Canada each year and the numbers are rising, said Demers. Eighty-five percent of those are work-related and the rest are environmental.
There are approximately 1,900 new cases of asbestos-related lung cancer each year — 90 of those in Saskatchewan.
“We’ve looked at all the dangers of asbestos which we’ve been aware of for years and now we’re looking at what we can do beyond the ban,” said Jesse Todd, chair of the Saskatchewan Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization.
Todd’s stepfather died from exposure to asbestos in 2012.
Demers argues that the most important next step is identifying which buildings have asbestos in them, so the people who live or work within them can take the necessary precautions.
Saskatchewan currently has a registry of all public buildings — as does the federal government — that have asbestos in them, but Todd said it should be expanded to include private buildings as well.
He also hopes the province will develop a patient registry, so it can track whether or not its efforts to decrease asbestos-related diseases in Saskatchewan is actually working.
“We obviously were a leader at one point when we brought in the building registry in the province, but we have ample opportunity to move forward and take more action on this front,” said Todd.
During Demer’s presentation, he highlighted several other recommendations essential to tackling the asbestos problem.
They include the safe and effective elimination of asbestos, documentation of not only where asbestos is present but also who is exposed to it and what their health conditions are, and better compensation for those impacted by asbestos.
Currently, people are compensated for workplace exposure to asbestos, but not environmental exposure, which excludes family members of those workers who bring asbestos into the home environment and are affected.
Indigenous people living in public housing — in which asbestos was once commonly used — is another example, said Demers.
It’s an issue Todd hopes to tackle here in Saskatchewan as well.
“People are still being exposed whether it’s accepted or not by WCB (Workers’ Compensation Board),” he said. “They still suffer the same fate.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019