Government claims non-friable asbestos cement is safe
(Canadian OH&S News) — Less than eight months after Health Canada (HC) updated its public information about asbestos, acknowledging that all forms of it are carcinogenic, word has come out that federally funded construction products are still using materials containing the mineral. Canada is also importing replacement brake pads and linings containing asbestos for commercial purposes, according to information from the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC).
“The Public Works policy and the position of the federal government is that asbestos can still be used even in new constructions,” said Denis St-Jean, the national health and safety officer with the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC). St-Jean could not confirm any specific construction projects that had used asbestos-containing products, but noted that Canada was still importing them.
CLC president Hassan Yussuff told COHSN that federal construction had been using cement pipes containing asbestos. “That’s our understanding,” he said, “and of course, our view is that there have been alternatives on the market for quite some time, so this is entirely unnecessary.”
Yussuff added that alterations of these materials cause hazards to construction employees by releasing asbestos dust and fibres into the air. “When you’re installing pipes, it’s never at the exact dimension that you may want, and sometimes the product may be very safe, but the reality is, workers are cutting those pipes,” he explained. “I don’t know why this would be allowed to continue.”
Michèle LaRose, a spokesperson for Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC), confirmed in an e-mail to COHSN that the federal National Building Code still permits construction projects to use non-friable asbestos-cement products.
“The products are not friable. Therefore, the health and safety of employees is not at risk,” wrote LaRose. “When this type of product is used, the information is contained in the asbestos-management plan and workers would be made aware before entering an area where it is present through the property and facility manager.”
She added that the Code allows cement pipes containing asbestos to be used as storm drains or roof drains. “Asbestos-cement pipes normally have a life cycle of 70 years and are often found in tall buildings, since they provide better sound insulation against falling water compared to cast-iron pipes.”
The federal government overhauled the official HC web page on asbestos last June, updating previous information that had deemed chrysotile asbestos less hazardous than amphibole asbestos (COHSN, July 7).
“To be fair, the previous government took a long time to get to the fact that they needed to recognize asbestos as a carcinogen,” said Yussuff. “But they didn’t bring in a comprehensive ban on asbestos use and products imported in this country.”
Both the CLC and the PSAC have been lobbying for the Justin Trudeau government to establish a national registry of buildings that contain asbestos products, as well as one of workers who have contracted disease from exposure.
“It’s still a struggle, federally, to get an adequate list and an updated list of all the buildings that have asbestos,” said St-Jean. He cited the current Saskatchewan public registry as an example “where not only workers and employers who actually lease space for their own offices would have access to reliable information.”
Although the world has known for decades that asbestos is a carcinogen, Canada has been slow to recognize the fact in law and public information. The country was a significant exporter of asbestos for decades, but awareness of the mineral’s hazards has increased in recent years, St-Jean pointed out.
“People are getting more and more aware of the fact that working with asbestos, even if it is encapsulated, that over time, there’s such a high risk that it’s going to be disturbed,” he said. “People don’t want to work in an environment where, if something happens, they could be potentially exposed to carcinogens.”
LaRose said that PSPC was planning to explore alternatives to asbestos for new construction projects and building renovations, but maintained that certain uses of asbestos-containing material were safe and legal.
“The Asbestos Products Regulations… under the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act governs the strict use of allowable non-friable asbestos in products in Canada, and PSPC adheres to it,” wrote LaRose.
According to the CLC website, diseases from asbestos exposure kill more than 2,000 Canadians each year, while the number of recorded cases of mesothelioma doubled from 1992 to 2012 in Canada. Worldwide, there is an annual average of 100,000 asbestos-related deaths, the World Health Organization has reported.
“There’s no such thing as safe asbestos,” said St-Jean. “We all know that’s ridiculous.”