According to Statistics Canada, asbestos-related deaths – particularly malignant mesothelioma – are on the rise, even though the use of asbestos in building products has declined since its heyday during the middle of the last century.
According to figures compiled by Statistics Canada, the number of new cases in the last 15 years has risen from 276 to 461, or 67 percent, and officials believe that the trend will continue for years as Canada’s population is impacted by the asbestos legacy of the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
In British Columbia alone, asbestos-related diseases have increased by 69 percent since 2002, according to data provided by the province’s worker’s compensation agency. In Quebec, the increase over that same period (2002-2008) increased only 39 percent, while the whole of Canada saw an increase of 32 percent.
Experts speculate deaths may rise even higher than the percentages on record, in spite of the average Canadian’s perception that asbestos health issues are part of the past, not the future. One of them is Kathleen Ruff, a former director of the B.C. Human Rights Commission, who has described asbestos as an environmental landmine that, once placed, goes on killing for decades.
The difficulty with diseases like mesothelioma is that many victims don’t even know they have come in contact with the fibrous mineral (widely used in insulation, building products, brake linings and even some household products like ironing board covers).
Even those that do know they’ve been exposed rarely exhibit symptoms sooner than two decades after exposure – another parallel with the landmine analogy – and the initial symptoms are easily confused with persistent pneumonias or lung infections, or failures of the immune response.
It is during this extended latency period, sometimes up to five decades, that mesothelioma makes its inroads, progressively invading more and more vital tissue until, upon diagnosis, most doctors are forced to deliver very poor prognoses. Few mesothelioma patients survive more than two years, the exceptions being where the disease is caught early and treated aggressively with surgery and dual chemotherapy regimens.
According to Larry Stoffman, an occupational health and safety worker with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, the deaths being seen in Canada now are a result of that long latency. Stoffman fully expects the death rate to continue rising every year until 2019, when the number of deaths reaches a peak.
According to Stoffman, the situation will be even worse in poor nations like Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, where, in 2008, Canada’s asbestos industry (the largest in the world during the last century, and still second only to Russia) exported 175 million tons of chrysotile, the most commonly used form of asbestos today.
The difficulty in Canada is that, while the U.S. was phasing out asbestos use in the 1980s in recognition of health risks, Ottawa was still promoting its use, saying the chrysotile form was less dangerous when used under appropriate protocols.
The World Health Organization, or WHO, says that is untrue, and that asbestos in general causes 90,000 preventable deaths yearly, but Canadian politicians remain divided, with Conservatives and Quebec supporting the industry because it delivers jobs, and the New Democrats opposed and determined to stop asbestos’ exports.
Another troubling statistic – 61 of 104 reported occupational deaths in Quebec in 2009 related to asbestos exposure – has New Democrats and anti-asbestos groups irate that anyone could ignore asbestos dangers, and a Quebec health department epidemiologist admits that many asbestos related illnesses are never reported because afflicted workers don’t ask for help from worker’s compensation organizations.
Another disturbing statistic – that mesothelioma cases are decreasing among miners but rising among construction workers – points to a second phase of asbestos exposures, during which renovation of Canada’s aging buildings (most in Quebec and British Columbia) from the 1950s through the 1980s is beginning to show its effects.
Sources: Heritage Toronto, Building and Wood Workers’ International website, R&D Magazine