Asbestos in Canada: A forgotten killer remains at large

Once touted as Canada’s ‘white gold.’ Now it’s banned—but its legacy lingers. Experts believe asbestos exposures still kill thousands each year.

Written by Harry North, Features Editor
Design by Drea Garcia Avila, Design Editor

Daniel Miskin of family-law firm Miskin Law says they deal with some 50 to 90 cancer cases a year from asbestos exposures.

“I hear of every type of job […] pipefitters and drywallers; floor tile installers and electricians, even a bank worker. And then jobs I’ve never heard of like a roustabout or a farrier.”

He also says that while most of their clients are 50 and older, they have had some dying as young as 14 years old.

Miskin specializes in claiming just compensation for victims of mesothelioma cancer, a cancer of the membrane on the outside of the lungs, heart, and intestines. The life expectancy for most is around a year—and there is no cure. The only known cause is asbestos exposure.

The cases Miskin and his colleagues take on are among the thousands of asbestos-caused diseases each year in Canada.

Asbestos, a known carcinogenic mineral, was widely used as an insulator and fireproofing agent due to its heat-resistant properties from the 1930s to the 1980s—until it was stopped from use in 1990. According to Statistics Canada, some 9.2 million homes occupied today were built before the ban. Most will have asbestos in them.

Canada’s history with asbestos, however, goes far beyond household use. Until 2011, Canada was one of the world’s leading asbestos producers and exporters, selling mainly to countries like India and Bangladesh. The abundance of the mineral, found mostly in Quebec, provided thousands of jobs for years—and millions in profits. It was touted as Canada’s ‘white gold.’

There was just one snag: Its dust fibres are deadly.

Inhaling these asbestos fibres can cause mesothelioma and lung cancers as well as other non-cancerous diseases, like asbestosis—a deadly hardening of the lungs.

Exposures occur when the asbestos is disturbed or damaged—it is safe when the material is intact. And disturbances can be human-caused—like breaking a ceiling or floor tile that has asbestos in it—or they can happen naturally over time with gradual degradation and crumbling.

The World Health Organization (WHO) now recognizes that there is no safe exposure threshold to inhalable asbestos fibres, urging countries to impose extremely low control limits to minimize the risks, or avoid using asbestos at all.

Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, eventually set out to ban the sale and production of asbestos in 2016, with the ban coming into effect in 2018, seeking to end the country's relationship with the deadly mineral—which at one point saw the major political parties, leading academics at universities (including McGill University) and even the trade union representing the asbestos miners, all supporting the asbestos lobby.

Today, however, the deadly legacy of asbestos in Canada lingers.

Canada’s Plagued History of Asbestos

Asbestos is Canada’s number one workplace killer

Official compensation statistics—while scattered by province—confirm that asbestos is still Canada’s number one workplace killer.

In British Columbia, asbestos-related deaths in 2022 amounted to a third of all workplace deaths, while in Quebec, asbestos-related diseases were responsible for 124 deaths in 2022. But many researchers and lawyers believe these figures underestimate the true burden.

The most recent comprehensive national study in 2019 estimated that asbestos-caused cancers are responsible for around 2400 cases each year, accounting for 81 per cent of mesotheliomas and 8 per cent of all lung cancer cases.

According to Cheryl Peters, a senior scientist at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) and one of the study’s authors, the percentages should still hold as estimates since they were based on decades of empirical analysis. Using the latest data from 2022 puts the current estimates upward of 2,800 new cases a year.

Most victims will be in their 60s and 70s—exposed while working decades ago. But as Miskin and others are witnessing, an increasing number of workers 50 and younger are falling victim, and from non-construction-based industries—the likes of teachers and bank workers.

Lung cancer and mesothelioma make up the highest number of cases. The other types included in the study were laryngeal and ovarian cancers, which account for a smaller number.

Both lung cancer and mesothelioma normally take decades to develop. Most victims eventually go to the doctor with mild symptoms—say, a cough or shortness of breath. The doctor will tell them that they may only have a year to live.

Chemotherapy and immunotherapies can delay the spread. But the survival rates are among the lowest of all cancers. Just 7 per cent of mesothelioma victims will live past five years.

Normally the impact on victims and their families is devastating—many anti-asbestos campaigners had their interest ignited by a family member or friend falling ill.

The government of Canada’s current strategy maintains the federal ban on the production, sale, and import of asbestos, Health Canada confirmed to the The Tribune.

The strategy also includes increasing awareness about the health risks and continuing expanding the online list of government buildings with asbestos in them. There is no mention of a systematic plan to remove it from public buildings.

A spokesperson for Health Canada said, “while risks related to asbestos-containing products that are already in use or installed, such as in existing buildings, are managed by existing federal, provincial, and municipal rules and regulations, Health Canada and the federal government has made efforts to raise awareness among Canadians about to the dangers of asbestos [citing Canada help pages].”

Regulations and standards are made more complex in Canada than other countries such as the United Kingdom because of the interplay between municipal, provincial, and federal jurisdictions.

The gradual phasing out of products in homes across the 1980s came from all strands of government.

The 2018 federal regulation is the latest major ban—coming over two decades after European counterparts. But the ban includes exemptions for industries, such as for military and nuclear industries, which anti-asbestos campaigners advocated against.

Kathleen Ruff, one of the leading human rights advocates involved with the fight against the asbestos lobby, said at the time, “they seem to have, if anything, weakened their proposed regulations and succumbed to lobbying by vested interests.”

Also exempt was the chlor-alkali industry, which produces chlorine. Asbestos had historically been used in the production of chlorine in the ‘diaphragms’ that separate the two compartments of an electrolytic cell. The diaphragm prevents sodium hydroxide from reacting with chlorine. The chlor-alkali industry is exempt from the ban until the end of 2029.

Canada’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (ECCC) justified the exemptions to The Tribune, saying, “Exclusions to the regulations were only considered in exceptional circumstances, taking into account socio-economic factors, the demonstrated absence of suitable alternatives, and with the consideration of health risks.

“For the exclusion related to a chlor-alkali facility, the exemption applied to the use of asbestos in diaphragms [...] This time-limited exclusion was provided to allow the facility sufficient time to develop and test non-asbestos alternative technologies and safely implement necessary adjustments.”

Alternatives in the chlor-alkali industry are already in use internationally. According to the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than half of the chlor-alkali corporations using asbestos diaphragms in the U.S. have already transitioned to alternatives.

Olin Corporation, one of the last three American chlorine companies using asbestos diaphragms—also with factories in Canada—stated in April that they now support an asbestos ban in the industry.

Health Canada commented on the matter to The Tribune saying, “we are actively monitoring the development of alternatives and may accelerate the phase out exemptions if circumstances permit.”

A simple eBay search can pull up products with asbestos, despite campaigners’ efforts.

Provincial governments play a larger role setting and enforcing workplace guidelines, but campaigners have called them to move faster on these issues. It was only last year that Quebec lowered its exposure limit for airborne fibres from 1 fibre/mL to 0.1, following the recommendations of an independent commission in 2020 from the Bureau d'audiences publiques sur l'environnement (BAPE).

The new airborne standard in Quebec aligns the province with Canada’s Labour Code limit, but questions remain about whether it will be observed. Gabriel Levesque with the Asbestos Victims Association of Quebec (AVAQ) told The Tribune that workplace regulation in construction industries is already difficult to enforce.

Construction studies undertaken by Quebec in the late 2000s showed that factories often exceeded asbestos standards, posing deadly threats to workers. And to this day, the sentiment amongst campaigners The Tribune has spoken with is that rules are unlikely to be observed.

Other provinces have become more proactive. British Columbia in June announced asbestos removal contractors will have an official government licence by the end of the year—making it the first jurisdiction in Canada to do so, according to WorkSafe BC. But most provinces’ regulations are still hazy—including for private homes.

The BAPE report stated that in 2020, the City of Westmount in Quebec, one of the more affluent neighbourhoods, was the only municipality of over 1200 in Quebec to have asbestos home renovation regulations.

Data from Statistics Canada shows, however, that there are still some 1.4 million homes in Quebec built before 1990, which may have asbestos products in them.

And despite efforts made by the federal government to increase awareness, according to researchers and campaigners The Tribune has spoken to, awareness amongst the general public still remains low—with mostly former construction workers aware of the risks. But when citizens do identify an asbestos problem, there is often confusion around what to do next—and whose responsibility it is.

Levesque from AVAQ said that one of the members in the victims association went around in circles with municipal, provincial, and federal authorities after they discovered there was exposed asbestos following a renovation.

“She contacted the municipality [...] got a response saying ‘it's not in our jurisdiction [...] contact the Institut national de santé public du Quebec’[...] They said it’s the Quebec Ministry of Health. The Quebec ministry then said ‘no, it’s not our responsibility. It's the city’s responsibility’ [...] They went like this for like, two months [...] We never got a response.”

Kathleen Ruff, 83, one of the leading anti-asbestos campaigners, speaking at a rally. Ruff eventually won the Quebec National Medal of Honour for her effort in fighting the asbestos industry in 2016.

Workers are the ones who pay the ultimate price

Since the provincial and federal action over the last five years, unions across Canada continue to hear member’s concerns—from construction and non-construction industries.

Those exposed can usually file a claim against some combination of their employer, the asbestos product manufacturer or their provincial worker’s compensation board.

But as the exposures likely occurred some decades ago, victims—who may have already been served a death sentence—face an uphill battle proving liability. Statute laws also mean there is normally a time limit of around two to three years, depending on the province, to file a claim—or victims wait until they have passed, and leave it to their families to take up the claim.

“I barely remember what I had for breakfast. It’s difficult to remember what type of pipe insulation you were using 40 years ago,” Miskin said.

The asbestos companies that are liable sought to protect themselves by filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy in the 80s and 90s—setting up trust funds to pay out victims. The majority of these companies remain in business today.

Other workers (that did not want to be named) who have not fallen ill yet but believe they have been exposed have also expressed difficulty speaking out to their employer.

“We have double standards [with workers], we don’t treat the lives of workers as being as valuable as others. And so we just don't take action,” Ruff said.

Across the world, WHO still estimates asbestos to be the world’s biggest workplace killer. And friends of Canada are moving to reduce asbestos exposures more drastically. The European Union announced in June they would lower the airborne regulation further to 0.01 fibre/ml, while countries like Poland have implemented a strategy of removing asbestos from public buildings.

“I think we need more openness [in Canada] and more attention on this, so that people are aware of the dangers,” Ruff said. “We still need better standards, and you don't need masses and masses of people to speak up and stand up for protecting human life [...] but you need a certain number.”

Updated Friday September 8th