The importation of asbestos into Canada increased by a startling 22 percent in 2014, raising safety concerns for the unsuspecting general public and those still working with the toxic products.
Brake pads and brake linings were the most popular asbestos import, valued at a seven-year high of $3.6 million, according to The Globe and Mail news service research.
Other related imports included various friction materials, compressed asbestos fiber jointing and shipments of crocidolite fibers, the most dangerous form of asbestos. Much of the findings came from Statistics Canada, a government website that provides economic, social and census data.
While the Canadian government maintains asbestos can be used safely under controlled conditions, health experts say there are unavoidable dangers and a complete ban is needed.
“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,” Paul Demers, University of Toronto professor in public health and director of the Occupational Cancer Research Centre at Cancer Care Ontario, told the Globe and Mail.
The total value of Canadian asbestos imports in 2014 was $6 million, a significant jump from $4.9 million in 2013.
Although the use of asbestos materials in Canada has dropped dramatically in the last 20 years, and the last asbestos mine in Canada ceased operations in 2011, the recent rise in imports has been unsettling to some.
The Globe and Mail estimated that more than 5,000 work-related deaths in the country have been attributed to asbestos exposure over the past 20 years.
Canada has imported more than $100 million worth of asbestos brake pads and linings in the past decade and more than $250 million worth of raw asbestos or asbestos products during that time period. Much of it remains in use today.
The occupational concern with brake pads and linings lies mostly with mechanics, who maintain cars, trucks and buses. It is common for these workers to spread toxic dust while cleaning worn brake parts with an air hose.
According to The Globe and Mail, a research project funded by the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer shows that 4,300 workers in maintenance and auto repair are exposed to asbestos annually.
According to Health Canada, the country’s federal health department, asbestos brake pads don’t pose any significant health risks to consumers. Its website shows asbestos is only a hazard “when fibers are present in the air that people breathe.”
Many are critical of the message Health Canada is sending with this statement. “That doesn’t talk about the real world,” Jim Brophy, a former director of the Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers, said.
“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.”
The World Health Organization has reiterated that no level of asbestos exposure is safe, leading to a complete ban of the product in more than 50 countries.
The ongoing asbestos issue has become a political debate in Canada, fanned by two opposition parties.
“There’s unnecessary risk,” Member of Parliament (MP) Pat Martin said. Martin, part of the New Democratic Party, has been lobbying for a ban on asbestos for more than a decade. “Brake shoes are one thing that a lot of home handymen, backyard mechanics, can do on their own. You are exposing people outside the industrial setting,” he said.
MP Geoff Regan of the Liberal Party agrees a comprehensive plan to phase out asbestos products is long overdue. “There’s really no need to have these products in Canada since our manufacturers have largely replaced asbestos with safer alternatives,” he said.
Non-asbestos brake pads and brake linings are already used in many places, but they are more expensive, fueling the desire for more imports.
Workplace exposure to asbestos continues to be the most deadly occupational hazard in Canada, and a leading cause of mesothelioma cancer.
It can take 20 to 50 years between exposure to the fibers and definitive diagnosis of the rare cancer, leaving Canadians guessing when the incidence of the disease in the country will start to decline.
“We don’t really know whether it’s peaked or not,” Demers said. “The country that was the first to ban asbestos, Sweden, is just showing a topping out now of mesothelioma. We did not act as early or as well in the area of asbestos.”