Watching her father die slowly of preventable cancer caused by asbestos exposure is the hardest thing Michelle Côté has ever done.
Letting the tears flow freely down her face, she told his story to a group of cabinet ministers on Thursday, as the federal government made a historic commitment to ban asbestos and products containing it by 2018.
"My dad lost his battle with mesothelioma and his dying wish was that no one else had to die this way," she said at a news conference at the Ottawa Hospital. "Gasping for air, it’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen and probably will see in my life time."
New workplace health and safety rules
Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral used in building insulation, fireproofing, brake pads, pipes, ceiling tiles and other industrial projects that is known to cause lung cancer and other diseases when its fibres are inhaled. Unions, health workers, exposure victims, and their families have been lobbying for a ban on the toxic substance for years, but have been met by regular resistance due to the role it plays in Canadian economies, particularly in Quebec.
Thursday's ban however — effective in 2018 — will include new regulations that ban the manufacture, use, import and export of asbestos under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, and establish new federal workplace health and safety rules that will limit workers like Côté's father from coming into contact with it on the job.
According to the Canadian Labour Congress, more than 2,000 Canadians die every year from diseases caused by asbestos exposure, and 150,000 Canadians are exposed to asbestos at work, particularly in the construction, mechanical, shipbuilding, trade contracting and waste management industries.
"I wish my dad was here and alive to see this," said Côté. "He’d be really proud that his story and his fight made a difference. We’re approaching our first Christmas without my dad, and I seriously couldn’t think of a better gift to give to him in his memory than to know that all Canadians have a future free of asbestos."
Action on asbestos "long overdue"
Asbestos was declared a human carcinogen by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer in 1987, and at the height of its use, was found in more than 3,000 applications around the world. It still remains in the homes and offices of thousands of Canadians today, but according to Health Canada, poses no significant health risk as long as its products are in good condition, isolated in an attic, sealed, or otherwise left undisturbed.
Production of the mineral has declined due to mounting deaths from exposure, but Canada has continued to import millions of dollars of asbestos products, with imports nearly doubling between 2011 and 2015. The majority of these goods were brake pads, brake linings, raw asbestos, and friction materials.
In April, the federal government introduced a ban on the use of asbestos-containing materials in new construction and renovation projects of Public Services and Procurement Canada. The ban announced this week builds on that commitment, said Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna.
She teared up and hugged Côté after hearing her story.
"We're taking action that has been long overdue and we’re doing it in the best possible way," McKenna said. "As a mother to three children, I can't think of anything more important than ensuring that our homes, schools, places of work — wherever we may go, are safe and healthy. That is one of the highest priorities of our government."
McKenna was joined at the announcement by Science Minister Kirsty Duncan, Health Minister Jane Philpott, and Public Services and Procurement Minister Judy Foote, all of whom acknowledged the day's events as "historic." It brings Canada up to speed with more than 50 countries around the world that have bans on the dangerous mineral, including Australia, Germany, Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom.
New building codes Canada-wide
Canada is currently the only G8 country that objected to listing asbestos as a hazardous material in the Rotterdam Convention in 2011. Canada now is expected to update its international position in the spring of 2017. The Rotterdam Convention's objective is to protect human health and the environment through informed management of hazardous chemicals.
It will also undertake a national consultation with stakeholders and the public before creating new legislation that bans the manufacture, use, import and export of asbestos, expands the list of asbestos-containing buildings owned or leased by the federal government, and changes codes across Canada to protect workers and their families.
"In the near future we will also propose new changes to the Canada Labour Code to reduce workplace exposure, amend the national building codes to prevent the use of asbestos in all construction and renovation projects, and raise awareness of the risks of asbestos to we can prevent the spread of lung cancer and other related illnesses," said Duncan. "By 2018, Canadians can be confident that our actions are guided by our commitment to protecting their health and safety, along with the health and safety of their families, coworkers and communities."
While the last asbestos mine in Quebec was closed late in 2011, searching for magnesium in the asbestos tailings left behind from these operations will continue to be permitted throughout the province. This special exemption from the new ban addresses answers concerns from the province's Transport Minister Laurent Lessard that jobs would be lost in the province by a hasty federal government decision.
"The beginning of the end"
Members of the Canadian Cancer Society and a handful of representatives from unions across Canada celebrated the announcement at the Ottawa Hospital. Canadian Labour Congress president Hassan Yussuff said, "we can all breathe a little easier" now.
"This is good public health policy that will, without question, save lives for generations to come," he told the audience, revealing that he himself has been exposed to asbestos through his work as a mechanic, and does not yet know if he will be able to count himself among "the lucky ones" who don't develop complications from breathing its fibres.
"Because these diseases have a long latency period, the danger is not over, but this is the beginning of the end," he added. "Now we need the provinces and territories to show the same leadership that the federal government has shown and move quickly to take stock of where asbestos is, harmonize regulation around disposal and remediation, and ensure a comprehensive health response."
Yussuff also emphasized the need for governments to work with indigenous governments to protect those living on reserves in houses with "asbestos-ridden vermiculite insulation." He said the work to get victims fairly compensated will continue with greater intensity.
A list of federal buildings containing asbestos is available through Public Services and Procurement Canada's National Asbestos Inventory.
— with files from Canadian Press