The End of Asbestos, by Emily Walsh of Alternatives Journal
In 2016, Canada finalized plans to fully ban the use and import of asbestos, putting into motion a rule to enact the ban by 2018. For decades, asbestos use has been known to cause devastating illnesses, ranging from a chronic lung disease called asbestosis to mesothelioma, a rare and very aggressive cancer. At one point in time, the natural mineral was used in myriad applications, namely in construction materials like drywall and insulation in homes. Asbestos also played a role in industry and manufacturing up until the 1970s, thanks to its ability to withstand heat. Typically, asbestos is only harmful when broken or damaged products release fibers, but individuals who worked with and around asbestos-containing materials are generally most susceptible to these illnesses. Mesothelioma remains a top occupational cancer in Canada and around the world because asbestos was used in so many ways during the past century.
When making the announcement to finally ban asbestos Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “We know that its impact on workers far outweighs any benefits it might have.” Trudeau’s remarks speak to the disease’s prevalence amongst those who worked directly with it, but also extend to cases of second-hand exposure. Family members who were exposed to the mineral through work clothes brought home by those workers would often come into contact with dust containing asbestos and leave themselves open to exposure. By taking steps to mitigate asbestos exposure, the Canadian government’s move to ban the carcinogen places the nation in line with dozens of other countries that have done the same. The move also places the few holdouts that are left in a harsh light.
Canada’s ban moves an unwanted spotlight onto the United States, one of the few developed nations without an asbestos ban, alongside other global forces like Russia, China, Brazil and India. In June of 2016, former President Barack Obama signed a bill into law affording the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the power to specifically identify, and the authority needed to craft, reforms targeting known carcinogens in the United States. During his announcement, Obama cited asbestos as the prime example of why the reforms and action were needed.
In December 2016, asbestos was named to the EPA’s initial investigation of 10 known toxic substances. The agency’s aim was to potentially ban chemicals proven too harmful to human health. In light of proposed cuts to the 2018 EPA budget by the Trump administration, there are several unknowns moving forward. Massive cuts currently projected around 30 percent cause uncertainty and doubt as to how the current investigation and potential legislation finally banning asbestos will take shape. By refusing to move forward with these progressive steps, the U.S. is firmly positioning itself in the ranks of nations without a ban.
Canada was once a major source of asbestos, to the tune of thousands of metric tons per year, making it one of the largest producers in the world. The country hit peak asbestos production in the 1970s, but stopped entirely in 2011 when the last two remaining mines in Canada shut down. However, like the rest of the world, Canada now has to contend with the issue of existing asbestos and how to mitigate this risk. Following decades of use, homes, schools and commercial spaces are at risk of containing asbestos. In addition to the upcoming ban, there is a push to create registries of locations and structures known to contain asbestos, as they’ve done in Saskatchewan.
Credit: Canadian Environmental Health Atlas. Production and export of asbestos in Canada declined from the 1970s onwards. The last mines finally closed in 2012.
Following Canada’s long history of asbestos use, over the past decade Ontario and Quebec have seen dramatic increases in cases of asbestos-related diseases. This horrible trend correlates with global projections suggesting mesothelioma cases will peak in 2020. The reason for this global uptick is largely due to the mineral’s wide use through the 1970s as well as the long latency period between exposure and developing asbestos-related diseases. Asbestosis, asbestos lung cancer and mesothelioma can take anywhere from 10-50 years to present, and are just now being seen in those who were exposed in decades prior.
Canada’s decision to ban asbestos is placing increased pressure on the few remaining developed countries still allowing asbestos to be legal. More than 50 nations have already banned the mineral, or have legislation in place to terminate its use in the near future. As major nations like Canada take measures to protect their citizens, a harsher light is thrown on the U.S. to rightfully take a stand against this global killer.
Canada’s enacting of this promise to ban as one of the former major players in global asbestos production has left the world looking to the U.S. to be the next country to take action.
Emily Walsh works with the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, raising awareness for the disease and educating audiences about the dangers of asbestos.
A\J, or Alternatives Journal, is Canada’s national environmental magazine, independently publishing intelligent & informed environmental journalism since 1971. A\J is published by Alternatives Inc, a registered Canadian charity. Learn more about Alternatives Journal at alternativesjournal.ca