4 Oct 2012
Despite recent announcements in Ottawa and Quebec that suggest asbestos will soon be a thing of the past, products made of the cancer-causing mineral are still being imported and used in Ontario today.
While the carcinogenic insulation is now being removed from buildings across the province, two new products that contain asbestos — brake pads and cement pipes — are being brought in.
Statistics Canada reports that $2.6 million worth of asbestos-containing brake pads were imported into Canada last year. Of that, more than half arrived in Ontario.
While Ottawa announced last week it would reverse its long-standing position and declare asbestos a dangerous material, and the new government in Quebec cancelled a loan that would have revived the defunct asbestos mining industry, the problem in Canada is far from over.
“Because we don’t mine, because we don’t use it in manufacturing, we are under the false impression that it’s gone,” said Liberal MPP Liz Sandals (Guelph), who introduced a private member’s bill earlier this year to ban brake pads containing asbestos in Ontario.
Manufacturers claim that the asbestos in these products is safe because it is tightly bound and the deadly fibres cannot be inhaled by mechanics or workers. But anti-asbestos activists say that when the brake pads wear down or when the pipes are cut, untold millions of fibres are released and are putting workers’ health at risk.
Canada has long been an international pariah on the asbestos issue. A major producer of the substance for decades — even after it was recognized as a carcinogen — Canada has been exporting it to countries like India and China under the pretext that it is safe if handled properly.
Lax regulations in those countries often mean that we’re “exporting cancer,” Sandals said. “But we haven’t been conscious of the fact that we still have health effects here at home.”
Ironically, brake pads made overseas with Canadian asbestos can make their way back here to be installed in cars. It’s a loophole in our laws that prevent manufacturers from using asbestos, but allow products containing it to come in from abroad.
“There’s no need and no reason to sell asbestos brake pads in Ontario,” said Rick Jamieson, CEO of ABS Friction, an asbestos-free brake pad manufacturer in Guelph. “The price differential is not that great.”
When they break down after years of wear, mechanics have no way to tell if the pads contain asbestos and could unknowingly expose themselves to the toxic substance.
Paul Demers, director of the Occupational Cancer Research Centre, says hundreds of new cases of cancer caused by asbestos exposure are being diagnosed in Ontario each year.
“It is probably the single biggest work-related cancer that we know and it’s due to exposure 30 to 40 years ago,” he said. “We’re still paying the price for having used asbestos in the past, which is why we need to take every measure we can to stop asbestos use now.”
Sandal’s bill banning the brake pads has received support from members of all three parties. It’s already passed two readings and is one step away from becoming law.
In the U.S., California and Washington state have already banned the toxic car component.
“It’s still prevalent, it’s still here, workers still encounter it,” said NDP MPP Taras Natyshak (Essex), a former construction worker and certified asbestos removal technician.
“I think it’s high time that we acknowledge that we can be an asbestos-free society and we can set the standard in the country so that no workers are ever exposed to this insidious compound.”
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