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Russell Wangersky: Asbestos? Good riddance


Back when there was an open pit mine in Baie Verte, asbestos was killing people. When you could drive into Thetford Mines in Quebec and marvel at the sheer amount of work required to build the massive tailings piles that surround the town’s mines, asbestos was killing people.

Russell Wangersky

When the mine at Baie Verte reopened with a new “wet process” to harvest asbestos fibre, asbestos was killing people.

Chances are, even after the Baie Verte mine closed for good, the asbestos fibre mined there has gone on killing people, and is still killing people today. It’s killed miners, family members of miners and everyday citizens who just had the misfortune to run into nearly invisible airborne fibres. (The great irony at Baie Verte, of course, is that once its run as an asbestos mine was over, a plan was floated to use its open pit as an asbestos waste site, so that those who has paid for the product but no longer wanted it, could ship it back and pay to have it buried in the same hole.)

Now, years too late, the federal government has finally promised new rules to completely ban the use of the cancer-causing material.

This country has always dragged its heels on controlling the dangerous mineral, in part because we were a leading producer of the material. Used in everything from insulation to fireproofing to concrete-strengthening in municipal water piping, the fibre was deceptively strong. That very strength also meant that tiny fibres could be breathed in, where they would migrate deep into lung tissue, acting as a root cause for cancers.

For years, the Canadian government supported the asbestos mining industry despite the deaths involved. In 2011, the Canadian government stood almost alone in blocking the listing of asbestos as a hazardous material at the level of the United Nations, with then-Natural Resources Joe Oliver saying, “I have been clear that our government promotes the safe and controlled use of chrysotile (asbestos), both domestically and internationally.” The real message? Mining jobs were more important than human health.

Canada’s argument was of the “see-no-evil, hear-no-evil” type: if this country supplied asbestos products to other countries, it wasn’t our job to ensure that the products were being used in a safe way.

Now, the federal government will ban the “manufacture, use, import and export” of asbestos by 2018, and start an aggressive program to change building codes and advocate for the safe removal of asbestos from public buildings, including schools and universities, many of which were built during asbestos boom-times and contain the material in a number of places and forms.

It’s way overdue. The Canadian Cancer Society estimates more than 10,000 Canadians have died from asbestos exposure in the past 10 years, and that number will grow; the health effects of exposure to the fibre can take years to surface, and current estimates are that 2,000 people a year develop asbestos-related cancers.

It can be found in materials used as old insulation, like vermiculite; in older plastering compounds; as pipe insulation; in the nine-by-nine flooring tiles found in many older homes. It still comes into this country in automotive brake pads and linings, creating hazards for mechanics and automobile recyclers.

The huge number of uses that there were for the “miracle fibre” of the 1960s and 1970s means that we haven’t even see the peak of human health exposures yet.

Asbestos is very much a time bomb.

And here in this province, with our very own asbestos mine garnering the joint support of two levels of government, we did our part.

Sometimes, putting jobs first and foremost can become a deadly proposition.

 

Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at Russell.wangersky@tc.tc — Twitter: @Wangersky.

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