After years of working in commercial buildings and industrial plants as a journeyman thermal insulator, Fred Clare, vice-president of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers, is now undergoing treatment for cancer he believes is related to asbestos exposure. He’s lost friends and colleagues over the years to health effects like asbestosis and one of the most aggressive forms of cancer — mesothelioma.
“It’s like an elephant sitting on someone’s chest until they can no longer breathe,” he says. “They used to say the only people who could pronounce the work mesothelioma were doctors and insulators. The number of friends I’ve lost is uncountable.”
There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, and anyone is in danger if they inhale the fibrous silicate minerals. These fibres are extremely fine and can remain suspended in the air for hours. Although Canada is finally banning asbestos-containing products for good by 2018, that doesn’t mean a risk won’t linger. After decades of mining and importing asbestos, various types of buildings still harbour the known carcinogen in their walls, floors, pipes, roofs and electrical insulations. There is a commitment to control it, but the government hasn’t clarified issues related to existing stockpiles.
At one time, asbestos was used in more than 3000 different applications around the globe. Today, CAREX Canada says about 152,000 Canadians are exposed to it at work, from construction workers and electricians to plumbing and heating tradespeople and other specialty contractors. Removing it remains a massive issue. Found in most industrial plants, in schools, hospitals and residential buildings, there is a responsibility to ensure it is removed and disposed of properly; however, people still believe it poses no problem if left alone.
Clare says it’s unfathomable to treat buildings like museums, where it’s alright if nothing is touched.
“We shouldn’t give people a nonchalant idea of asbestos; people think it’s okay if not disturbed, which is totally impractical,” he urges. “Everything we build goes through wear and tear and breaks down over time.”
Next steps for existing asbestos
Necessary steps the federal government is being urged to take with asbestos in existing buildings include harmonizing regulatory standards for asbestos disposal and national registries of contaminated buildings and workers who have been exposed. More expert panels to advise on proper implementation of legislation would also help. This extends to working with provincial governments to change compensation legislation and developing a comprehensive health response to asbestos-related diseases, including early detection and effective treatment.
Elements like waste management and non-compliance are a multi-prong problem, according to Fe de Leon, researcher with the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA), which provides legal services to people of low income and other vulnerable populations.” She sees these issues as a shared responsibility among the provincial and federal government. Proposed regulations need “much stronger language” around what the government intends to do, for instance, the full life cycle of asbestos in consumer products.
“We have strong advocates in unions and the healthcare field who think there needs to be better “right to know” provisions that include development and expanding the registries that exist for workers, as well as the registries that demonstrate the existence of asbestos in buildings,” says de Leon. “Those two key things are dealt with in parts of the federal government announcement, but there needs to be more open discussion on what elements are needed to improve those provisions, and how they intend to share the information that is gathered in those registries.”
The clinic de Leon works at has been receiving numerous calls from the public, from parents and students in academic institutions who are concerned they are not fully protected through existing regulations.
They are right to worry. Members of the public may be exposed to fibres if they occupy buildings where asbestos was present and disturbed during a renovation. They may also come in contact with fibres that workers carry on their clothing. More than 2,000 Canadians die every year from diseases caused by asbestos exposure, such as mesotheliomas and lung, laryngeal and ovarian cancers. The most recent statistics show death from mesothelioma increased 60 per cent between 2000 and 2012. In 2012, there were 560 new cases, up from 276 cases in 1992, as the latency period of the disease can be anywhere from 20 to 40 years.
Compliance in the field
A few weeks ago, in the hallway next to Clare’s hospital room where he underwent a treatment procedure, workers set up an asbestos tent for maintenance work. Dust was visible and there were no warning signs in place alerting patients and staff of danger, a reality that Clare faces every day.
He wants to see more urgency to safely remove asbestos, and flags building materials like acoustic tiles and pipes. If they were installed prior to the 1980s they likely contain asbestos. Yet even a few years ago he was alerted that asbestos piping for drainage purposes was being installed in downtown Toronto and Ottawa. Most likely, the asbestos was non-friable, which means it is not readily subject to crumbling, powdering and becoming airborne. “An oversight,” he adds.
“When I looked into it, I found it was being installed in brand new condominiums,” he says. “There’s no way you’re going to snap asbestos piping without causing dust; they’re not looking at issues like accidents and abrasion. Are owners who are selling those multi-million dollar buildings letting the public know they’re using this product?”
Canadians may be more aware of hazards today, but non-compliance is still an issue. At a recent health and safety conference, Partners in Prevention, Meghan Kelly, training specialist at Pinchin Ltd., spoke about what she sees in the field regarding regulatory compliance.
“Although regulatory compliance in the industrial, commercial and institutional (ICI) sectors is fairly good among building managers and employees, it’s not perfect,” said Kelly.
The idea that asbestos containing materials won’t harm anyone if left alone and managed properly is unrealistic.
“We see over and over again, despite best efforts and intentions, these accidental disturbances continue to happen and work continues to be done improperly,” said Kelly. We keep running into repeated risks associated with asbestos exposure.”
Many owners and managers have asbestos management surveys and programs in place. Kelly sees “pretty good control” of compliance regarding work being done, with asbestos awareness training picking up. However, gaps remain, such as failing to update information in asbestos records after repairs and renovations, which result in inaccurate records, and owners are planning work based on these records. She also see less overall compliance with small scale commercial businesses and in northern areas of Canada, most likely due to lack of financial resources and awareness. Big compliance gaps are also evident in the residential sector, where contractors are conducting work without necessary training.
Light and fluffy, asbestos is a silent masquerader, quieter and less expensive than other materials, rendering workers voiceless. Once called a miracle fibre because it was fire proof, durable and said to last forever, it is so long lasting that once inside a body, it cannot be expelled or broken down.
“Once you’re exposed, it goes on for years and years and years and years,” says Clare. “For the rest of your life.”
Rebecca Melnyk is online editor of Facility Cleaning & Maintenance