Decades-Long Fight to Ban Asbestos in Canada Shows Consumer Pressure Pays Off

by Sokolove Law

At the end of this year, Canada will become the most recent nation to ban asbestos. This ban marks the end of a decades-long struggle, since asbestos has been an economic driver in parts of Quebec. While the country stopped mining operations there in 2012, asbestos has been used for years as a fire retardant in constructing buildings and ships, and it has been incorporated into insulation, roofing, concrete pipes, and fire-protective clothing, among other products.

Despite the fact that asbestos is a deadly carcinogen, some countries and asbestos-producing companies refuse to admit that asbestos is harmful. For years Canadian officials maintained that crysotile asbestos mined in Quebec did not cause cancer. The country went so far as to prevent asbestos from being declared hazardous in trade agreements, and stopped the United Nations from restricting the import and export of asbestos internationally. As years passed, however, it became clear that asbestos was a prime cause of workplace deaths in Canada.

Asbestos fibers can be deadly if inhaled, leading to lung cancer and mesothelioma, a form of cancer that attacks the lungs and other vital organs. According to Canadian government statistics, asbestos exposure was connected to 1,900 cases of lung cancer and 430 cases of mesothelioma in Canada in 2011. It takes years for asbestos-related diseases to become apparent, so figures may not decrease for some time, but the new ban is an important first step to better worker and consumer health.

The Long Road to an Asbestos-Free Environment

The Canadian ban will be put in place at the end of the year, and states that companies cannot use, sell, or import asbestos into Canada. Additionally, consumer products cannot contain more than a miniscule amount of asbestos. Some advocacy groups have said the ban does not go far enough, since it does not include 800 Millions tons of mining debris near 2 towns in Quebec that used to manufacture asbestos. About 40 percent of these rocks may be part asbestos, but companies will be allowed to refine the stone for the magnesium it contains.

Despite these exceptions, many in Canada are cheering the ban as part of a longer-term plan. Hassan Yussuff, Canadian Labour Congress President, said, “This is a critical step on the long road to banning asbestos, and will, without a doubt, save lives for generations to come.”

More than 55 countries have banned asbestos, meaning Canada joins an international network of governments that recognize its carcinogenic effects. Yet Canadian officials stress there is more work to be done, since provinces will need to determine where asbestos has been used in construction, and how to remove it safely. Both public and private buildings, including schools, hospitals, and homes, may contain asbestos, which must be disposed of properly.

While asbestos fibers are not released into the atmosphere unless it is disturbed, after natural disasters such as tornadoes and forest fires, asbestos in buildings can pollute the air and put whole communities at risk. The salvage operation is thus a crucial next step.

Health Hazards of Asbestos

The respiratory problems caused by asbestos were known as early as the 1920s, when it was clear asbestos could harm workers’ lungs. It took 50 more years, however, before countries started banning asbestos in the 1970s. Just 3 decades ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) also declared asbestos a hazardous carcinogen.

Inhaling asbestos fibers can cause lung cancer or mesothelimoa, cancers that are all the more dangerous because they are difficult to detect and treat. Often the coughing and other symptoms caused by these deadly diseases is attributed to other respiratory problems before the cancer is detected. Additionally, since these conditions take decades to develop, previous asbestos exposure may be long forgotten as a potential cause of illness.

From Promoted to Prohibited: Enacting a Change of Heart on Asbestos

Canada’s asbestos ban has been a 2-year process, one first announced by Canadian ministers in late 2016. While the ban has been a long time coming, it is important to recognize the shift in Canada’s attitude toward asbestos from the time when they were producing 63 million tons every year. Yet over the past decades, Canadian workers and consumers have been exerting pressure on the government for a ban, which also meant that most of Canada’s asbestos had to be exported.

A similar battle has long been waged in the United States, as citizens fight for a complete asbestos ban. The Canadian ban gives American workers and consumers hope that this war against big business interests can indeed be won. With continued pressure on our elected officials to put a stop to the use of the deadly substance, we, too, can live in a country where we put people before profits.

 

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