Asbestos is the commercial term for a group of naturally occurring mineral fibres. It was historically used in many commercial applications, including insulation in buildings, brake pads, cement pipe, gaskets, and textiles. Use of asbestos in almost all applications was banned in Canada in 2018, although it is still present in previously installed building materials and other manufactured products.
Asbestos causes mesothelioma (a cancer of the protective lining of the lungs and other internal organs), lung cancer, laryngeal cancer, and ovarian cancer. There is also some evidence that it may cause pharyngeal, colorectal and stomach cancer . Exposure to asbestos also causes asbestosis (scarring of the lungs). CAREX Canada estimates that approximately 152,000 workers are currently exposed to asbestos in Canada .
Approximately 1900 lung cancers and 430 mesotheliomas are due to occupational asbestos exposure each year, based on 2011 cancer statistics. This amounts to 8% of all lung cancers and 81% of all mesotheliomas diagnosed annually. The cost of these cancers is approximately $2.35 billion . Most asbestos-related cancers occur among workers in the manufacturing and construction sectors (see pie chart).
Smaller numbers of laryngeal and ovarian cancers were also observed. It was not feasible to assess the number of pharyngeal, stomach and colorectal cancers that may be attributable to occupational asbestos exposure.
Data from the Burden of Occupational Cancer study were used to build the case for the Canada’s asbestos ban, which came into force in 2018 . The ban prohibits the import, sale, and use of asbestos and asbestos-containing products (with some exclusions). However, the ban does not address the issue of exposure to asbestos in existing materials, such as during the demolition, repair, or remediation of older buildings. Provincial regulations set out the proper procedures to control exposure during work with asbestos and asbestos-containing materials, but the possibility of exposure to workers and the public will continue to exist as long as asbestos is still present in older products and buildings. Other policies that could help reduce exposure to asbestos include creating public registry of all public buildings and workplaces that contain asbestos, developing national standards and regulations for asbestos disposal, and establishing a provincial inter-ministerial working group to develop a framework for implementing the asbestos ban and related exposure monitoring and reporting. Removing all remaining exemptions from the asbestos ban could also help reduce exposure.
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