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Adios, Asbestos

Federal government announces plan to ban asbestos by 2018
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On December 15th, 2016, The Canadian Federal Government announced plans to ban asbestos and asbestos-containing products by 2018. The move was announced by the Honourable Kristy Duncan, Minister of Science; ministries including Health, Environment and Climate Change, and Public Services and Procurement were also involved.

“Protecting the health and safety of Canadians is of utmost importance to the government. There is irrefutable evidence that has led us to take concrete action to ban asbestos,” explained Duncan in the government’s press release.

Asbestos describes six types of a natural fibrous mineral. The substance has many chemical and physical properties that make it a strong, long-lasting and heat-resistant material. This has resulted historically in asbestos being a desirable resource for industrial applications; it has been utilized as an insulating material in developing houses and buildings, and thermal and electrical systems. Its unique physiochemical attributes also made it helpful in developing car brake pads and producing industrial furnaces and heating systems.

Modern use of asbestos as a building material began around 1880 and peaked in the 1970s, with asbestos being used in over 3,000 different applications and products. However, once long-term negative health effects associated with the material became well known, the risks of asbestos clearly outweighed the benefits.

Through the inhalation of its fibres, asbestos exposure has been found to lead to diseases such as lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis, a condition resulting in scarred lungs.

Asbestos was named a human carcinogen by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer in 1987. In addition, the Rotterdam Convention, an international treaty adopted by 165 countries, labelled five types of asbestos as being a hazardous material in 1998. The designation came into effect in 2004.

Asbestos production has long been a part of Canada’s economic history. With large asbestos mines located in Quebec, Canada was once one of the world’s largest exporters of chrysotile serpentine (the Canadian type of asbestos), shipping the mineral to developing nations like India and Thailand.

Canada continued to produce and export the mineral even after its peak use in the 1970’s. In 2011, the last two asbestos mines in Quebec were shut down and in 2012, the federal government announced plans to back down on support of the industry.

Given the harms that the mineral causes, it is surprising to some that Canada has not banned the use or import of asbestos sooner. Dr. Paul Bozek, assistant professor from the University of Toronto Dalla Lana School of Public Health, explains that the inaction was both political and economic.

Canada used to be a leading exporter of asbestos, but only because the previous federal government and government of Quebec used to subsidize the asbestos mining industry in Quebec. When the subsidies stopped, so did the mining, at the loss of a few thousand jobs,” Bozek told The Varsity.

“There has also been a mental block about linking asbestos to health since the lag between exposure and disease takes decades, so despite scientific evidence dating back to the 1950’s, policy changes slowly when jobs and exports [are] at stake.”

Bozek has previously researched asbestos remediation levels outside of building remediation enclosures, showing how certain practices can lead to asbestos release outside of an enclosed zone.

The government declared plans to work with the labour, trade, health and commercial sectors to realize the asbestos ban by 2018. Additionally, the government is aiming to amend the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA) to install new regulations for banning the import, export and manufacturing of asbestos.

“CEPA can be useful to ensure imported products (e.g. brake pads and asbestos building products) are banned or at least labelled and restricted in their use. But asbestos will continue to be present in the built environment for decades and I doubt that CEPA can force people to tear down a perfectly habitable build[ing] to eliminate a threat that is generally managed in-situ by provincial legislation,” explained Bozek.

In addition to proposed amendments, the federal government plans to work with provincial and territorial jurisdictions to change building codes to prohibit asbestos use in new construction projects. Canada’s domestic and international position regarding asbestos as a hazardous material is to be updated before a meeting of countries subject to the Rotterdam Convention. The federal government also will catalogue its list of federally-owned buildings containing asbestos.

Bozek also posits that additional regulation is needed regarding the re-use of asbestos wastes.

For example, road asphalt that contains asbestos (purposely added as a reinforcing fibre) is currently legal to re-use when a road is re-paved and is recycled into either new asphalt or simply ground into pieces that are used in place of gravel,” explained Bozek.

“Banning or labelling to ensure control of the asbestos release into air from these sources will further protect Canadians,” he said.