Canada Admits Using Asbestos in New Public Buildings

Canadian flag waving over Vancouver skyline

The argument to ban asbestos in Canada is growing stronger after government officials admitted using the carcinogen in the renovation and construction of federal buildings.

Members of the nation’s trade union association also say the importation of asbestos-containing materials, specifically asbestos cement pipes installed in government buildings, is on the rise.

“That they’re continuing to use a known carcinogen in the workplace is just unbelievable,” said Laura Lozanski, occupational health and safety officer at the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

Government officials with Public Services and Procurement and the Canada Review Agency acknowledged the use of asbestos in federal buildings — even as the government is undergoing asbestos abatement projects — after the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) news agency confirmed the findings.

Mesothelioma is a deadly cancer primarily caused by workplace exposure to asbestos. The news of the government’s asbestos use is especially alarming because the number of new mesothelioma cases in Canada is on the rise.

Statistics Canada, a federal economic, social and census database, shows there were 560 new mesothelioma cases in 2012 (the latest figures) — a 67 percent increase from 2000.

Canadian Government Downplays Asbestos Dangers

More than 40 countries, including all members of the European Union, have banned asbestos. But its use in Canada is not forbidden. The U.S. government also hasn’t banned asbestos despite repeated efforts.

Canadian government officials say asbestos can be used safely under controlled conditions.

“Its use is limited to non-friable forms (not easily broken into smaller pieces) and is strictly controlled under the Asbestos Products Regulations,” Canada Revenue Agency spokesman Philippe Brideau told CBC.

But Lozanski refutes Brideau’s claim.

“This continued putting forward that it’s non-friable, and it’s safe, is complete nonsense and should not be used by people who should know better,” Lozanski said.

A 2015 report in the Globe and Mail shows Canada 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.

Canada also exports 96 percent of the mined mineral to Asian countries.

Unions, Health Advocates Push to Ban Asbestos

Canada Public Health Association Executive Director Ian Culbert doesn’t believe “asbestos is a legal product for the building trades anymore.”

“You’d think the federal government would be the last landlord to be using that kind of a product,” Culbert said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates more than 125 million people around the world are exposed to asbestos in the workplace annually.

WHO leaders recommend:

  • Banning all types of asbestos.
  • Replacing the mineral with safer products.
  • Taking steps to prevent exposure during abatement.
  • Improving early diagnosis and treatment.

Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, the nation’s trade union association, hopes the government “will do a serious review, and hopefully the labor minister will consider bringing in a unilateral ban on all forms of asbestos products that are having an impact on human health in this country.”

As a minor step, unions want the Canadian government to create a public registry that identifies public buildings containing asbestos products.

Ban Asbestos Canada, a coalition of health, environmental and labor groups, sent a letter to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking to ban the use, export and import of asbestos-containing products.

“This practice needs to be ceased immediately,” said Denis St-Jean, a national safety officer for the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC). PSAC is part of Ban Asbestos Canada. “We’re also asking that the use of any asbestos-containing material be withdrawn from any federally funded infrastructure projects from the federal government.”

Some Canadian Government Officials Support Asbestos Ban

New Democratic Party Member of Parliament Sheri Benson asked lawmakers to put an end to asbestos use in new construction.

She says this is an opportunity for the federal government to play a leadership role and announce future projects will no longer use asbestos.

Minister of Public Services and Procurement Judy Foote said the government “will undertake a review to make sure that asbestos is not a product that’s used on an on-going basis.”

Maryann Mihychuk, federal minister of employment, workforce development and labor said Canada is “monitoring the situation.”

“We’re considering the ban, but we’re not there yet.”

  1. Grant, T. (2015, March 27). Asbestos Imports Rising in Canada Despite Health Warnings. Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/imports-of-asbestos-products-rising-in-canada-despite-health-warnings/article23675154/
  2. Ireton, J. (2016, February 3). Federal labour minister said she will consider asbestos ban. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/federal-labour-minister-says-she-will-consider-asbestos-ban-1.3431081
  3. Ireton, J. (2016, February 2). Federal government still using asbestos in construction. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/federal-government-still-using-asbestos-in-new-construction-1.3428967
  4. Statistics Canada. (2015, October 22). Table 103-0550: New cases of primary cancer (based on the May 2015 CCR tabulation file), by cancer type, age group and sex, Canada, provinces and territories. Retrieved from http://www5.statcan.gc.ca/cansim/pick-choisir?lang=eng&p2=33&id=1030550
  5. World Health Organization. (2016). International Programme on Chemical Safety: Asbestos. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/ipcs/assessment/public_health/asbestos/en/

Beth Swantek has been writing professionally for 30 years. She is a former news reporter and anchor for a CBS affiliate in Michigan and often reported breaking medical and political news. Currently, she teaches media writing and video production at Lawrence Technological University in the Detroit area, as well as working as a freelance writer and producer.

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