Asbestos in Canadian History

Asbestos in Canadian History

Asbestos in Canadian History

After climbing steadily over the past two decades, Canada’s mesothelioma cancer rate is now one of the highest in the world. Few in the medical community are surprised: Canada’s dedication to the mining of chrysotile asbestos and the Canadian government’s track record for permitting its production and use in thousands of products laid the groundwork for exposing citizens to the toxic mineral. The most significant increases occurred in the shipbuilding areas around Vancouver, and in Quebec, home to many of Canada’s early asbestos mines.

About 2.1 of 100,000 Canadians are diagnosed every year with the aggressive disease, according to experts. For context, consider that in 1984, 153 Canadian men were diagnosed with mesothelioma throughout all the country’s provinces. By 2003, 344 cases were reported among men, and 78 among women. Deaths from mesothelioma totaled 404 in 2008.

Because of the disease’s latency period of between 20 and 50 years, medical professional expect the death rate will not level off for several more years.

Canada’s rate of mesothelioma corresponds with the country’s long-held infatuation with asbestos, whose fibers cause all forms of the disease. The country’s first asbestos mine opened in Quebec in 1879 – the first step towards a close relationship between the country and “Canada’s Gold.”

As the 19th century slid into the 20th century, an increasing number of asbestos mines opened, taking advantage of the large deposits of the mineral found in provinces that included Quebec, Newfoundland, British Columbia and the Yukon. Companies such as Johns-Manville arrived, taking advantage of the asbestos mines to manufacture a variety of asbestos-containing products that would be used in Canada and worldwide.

But while the asbestos industry boomed and mine owners and company executives made money, workers got sick, coughing up blood, suffering from breathing difficulties and dying. Canadian mortality rates among miners were studied as early as the 1920s, evidence exists and asbestos company executives withheld negative reports from both their employees and the public.

The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company formed the Department of Industrial Hygiene at McGill University, and it suspected asbestos was sickening workers and causing some sort of “dust disease” of the lungs. A study conducted by the organization in the 1930s discovered that, of 200 men who participated, 42 developed asbestosis. However, the findings were never published and lawyers for asbestos manufacturers in Canada and the U.S. suggested to company executives that asbestosis receive “minimum publicity.”

By 1966, Canada produced 40 percent of the world’s chrysotile asbestos. By the 1970’s, doctors had declared the asbestos mining towns in Canada to be among the most dangerous in the world, with rates of mesothelioma and other asbestos diseases increasing.

It was hardly surprising: Canadian houses were constructed with asbestos-containing cement and other materials. At one point, the vast majority of homes in Canada contained any number of asbestos-laden products ranging from shingles and siding to insulation. Those involved in the construction industry were almost always exposed to the hazardous mineral, and, as a result, rates of asbestos-related diseases are now extremely high among construction workers. In addition, at least 4,000 household products used by Canadians during much of the 20th century contained asbestos in varying amounts.

Asbestos opponents and those weary of seeing Canada’s mesothelioma rate rise celebrated in 2011 when the country’s asbestos industry ground to a standstill. Canada’s last two remaining active mines, the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos, Quebec, and the Lac d’amiante du Canada in the nearby town of Thetford Mines, Quebec, shut down because of financial, labor and development issues – the first time in 130 years that the Canadian asbestos production stalled.

One year later, in the face of broad criticism from public health officials, asbestos victims and cancer advocacy groups, the provincial government of Quebec threw a lifeline to Canada’s beleaguered asbestos sector in the form of a $58 million guaranteed loan. The money was to cover more than two-thirds of the cost of renovating and reopening the Jeffrey Mine – the rest of the financing is private – and helping it to operate for another 20 years.

But before the government transferred money to the mine, the Quebec Liberal Party was defeated in a provincial election. The winning party – Parti Quibecois – cancelled the loan. Meanwhile, doctors – and others – quietly keep an eye out for the mine’s 425 former employees and whether any of them develop mesothelioma.

Professions Impacted By Mesothelioma 

Anyone involved in those industries is at risk for exposure to asbestos and to the diseases caused by asbestos fibers.

Those primary professions include:

  • Miners
  • Ship loaders
  • Truck Drivers

In many cases, loose asbestos fibers are shipped to developing countries from Canada in large reinforced paper bags, where they are handled by undertrained and inadequately protected workers.

A secondary group of workers are also considered at-risk. These are people who work in trades that are one step removed from the process of removing asbestos from mines and transporting it to second- and third-world countries who continue to use asbestos products in construction.

These high-risk trades are similar to those in other places around the world:

  • Carpenters
  • Construction workers
  • Insulation installers
  • Plumbers
  • Roofers
  • Shipbuilders
  • Textile workers

In recent years, Canada’s domestic production and consumption of asbestos declined, so fewer mining and manufacturing workers were exposed. However, because of the renovation and demolition of the country’s aging buildings, especially in Quebec and British Columbia from the 1950s through the 1980s, the mesothelioma rate has been rising among construction and maintenance workers.


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