The federal government has recently overhauled its official Health Canada (HC) web page about the risks of asbestos, acknowledging for the first time that all forms of the mineral are carcinogenic.
The new public information, which was posted to the HC site on June 19, replaced the previous write-up dated Oct. 14, 2012. The most significant change is that the current information does not distinguish between asbestos types that supposedly differ in danger levels. The previous information classified two types of asbestos: amphibole, acknowledged as “likely to inflict damage [in the lungs] and cause disease, including cancer”, and chrysotile, previously dismissed as “less potent” due to structural and chemical differences.
“Breathing in asbestos fibres can cause cancer and other diseases,” HC’s asbestos page currently reads, citing asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer as the main risks.
Another telling difference is that the previous information claimed that asbestos fibres caused these diseases “when inhaled in significant quantities,” but the updated information states nothing about quantity, implying that there’s no threshold to the risk.
“You can be exposed to asbestos when a home or building is being renovated or demolished,” HC now says. “Some car parts also contain asbestos.”
But the site also states that asbestos poses “no significant health risks” if the materials containing it within a building’s structure are tightly bound in other products, “sealed behind walls and floorboards” and “left undisturbed.”
This update is the latest development in Canada regarding the public and occupational risks of asbestos. In March, two CBC reports exposed a possible asbestos risk at the Canada Revenue Agency building in Ottawa. In late 2013, Saskatchewan became the first province to enact a law requiring a public registry of buildings that contain asbestos.
While the federal government has reportedly been downplaying the significance of these changes in the media, stating that they were merely concessions to clarity and accuracy, the move has received some acclaim from the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) in the United States, as well as the Occupational Cancer Research Centre in Toronto.
On July 3, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) sent out a media release that supported the HC changes, but also criticized the Stephen Harper government for continuing to back the sale and import of asbestos in Canada through last year’s Bill C-31, which had revised the Hazardous Products Act.
“Though Health Canada’s change in position is welcome, these changes alone are not a solution to protect workers,” CUPE stated. “The real issue lies in both federal and provincial regulations, which are often weak or go unenforced, leaving workers at risk.
“Asbestos continues to make CUPE members sick,” added CUPE in the release. “The legacy of harm caused by asbestos is significant – it’s the largest cause of workplace death in Canada.”
ADAO president Linda Reinstein called HC’s decision “a landmark shift,” according to the Globe and Mail. Reinstein later commented, “I don’t buy this,” on her Twitter account, regarding the federal government’s claim that the asbestos changes were not significant.
“Pathetic and shameful the U.S.A. and Canada haven’t banned asbestos and imports/exports continue,” Reinstein added, calling the two nations “merchants of death.”
More than 50 countries have banned asbestos in all of its forms, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. Canada continued to mine chrysotile asbestos until 2012.
HC’s updated information on asbestos can be viewed at http://healthycanadians.gc.ca/healthy-living-vie-saine/environment-environnement/air/contaminants/asbestos-amiante-eng.php.