The Globe and Mail
For John Nolan, the first warning signs came mid-November of last year while he was leading a tour in the Peruvian Andes.
Mr. Nolan, 67, who lives in Fort Erie in southwestern Ontario, was guiding a group through the mountains near the storied Incan city of Cuzco.
He had criss-crossed the planet for years as a tour guide, and knew what higher altitudes typically felt like. But something terrifying happened while he was hauling his luggage up some steep stone steps to his cabin.
“I’ve never been out of breath in such a panicky, horrible way,” Mr. Nolan says in a raspy voice between laboured breaths. “Normally, when you run out of breath, you know you’re going to get it back. This was different. It was as if you were hitting a stone wall, with no hope of getting air. It was like suffocating.”
The diagnosis, back at home, was swift and cruel. It was mesothelioma — an incurable cancer caused almost exclusively by asbestos exposure. Mr. Nolan was initially given a few months to live.
Asbestos is the top on-the-job killer in Canada. But a Globe and Mail investigation has found that this stark fact has been obscured by the country’s longstanding economic interest in the onetime “miracle mineral.” Even though Canada’s own asbestos industry has dwindled from pre-eminence to insignificance — the country’s last two mines closed in 2011 — the federal government has dragged its feet as other nations have acknowledged asbestos’s deadly impact and moved to protect their populations from it.
Ottawa, in fact, holds to the position that asbestos can be safe, despite an international consensus among doctors and researchers to the contrary.
And despite evidence that even low levels of exposure can be harmful, asbestos products continue to enter the country. Unlike at least 52 other countries, from Australia and Japan to Sweden and the United Kingdom, Canada has never banned imports or exports of asbestos.
“Many people are under the misconception that we’ve banned asbestos. But the fact is, no, we still use asbestos for some things,” says Paul Demers, one of the country’s leading experts on asbestos-related disease.
Ongoing uses (such as brake pads) are not even the biggest threat. “The problem is that asbestos doesn’t simply go away,” says Dr. Demers, who is a University of Toronto professor in public health and director at the Occupational Cancer Research Centre at Cancer Care Ontario, a provincial agency. “We may not use as much new asbestos now, but there’s a lot of it in our environment, in older buildings and structures,” he says.
With asbestos so prevalent, Canada faces an invisible epidemic: mesothelioma. The disease has a long latency period, of 20 to 40 years; Mr. Nolan’s asbestos exposure occurred in the late 1980s when he was manager of Windsor’s Cleary Auditorium and Convention Centre.
His office was located within 25 feet of renovations, where workers in protective suits removed asbestos from the ceiling and walls. The room was covered in plastic sheeting — but the ventilation pumped air right from the dusty renovation into his windowless office. (He also recalls asbestos was present in the basement’s pipes.)
The crew took safety precautions, but “for those of us who were still working there, we just carried on,” he says.
“Nobody came by to say ‘this is a really bad thing here, you’ve gotta get out of the building, you’ve gotta move out of the building.’”
“We were relying on a mechanical system that ventilates and so as they’re taking the asbestos out, how the hell do they know where it’s going as they’re removing it? Well it obviously was coming into the office next door.”
“It was, I guess, dumb on our part too because there’s somebody 20 feet away with this heavy-duty ventilator and mask and complete covering, and there I am standing with my street clothes on.”
By striking both blue-collar workers and white-collar workers, like Mr. Nolan, mesothelioma has racked up a record as the most common cause of workplace deaths in Canada for every year between 2007 and 2012, with more than 1,200 successful claims for fatality benefits made in that time, data from the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada show. Asbestosis (fibrosis of the lungs, which impairs breathing, but is not typically fatal) is the fourth-most common claim.
Other asbestos-related diseases include lung cancer and pleural plaque (a calcification on the lungs). Asbestos exposure also raises the risk of several other of cancers.
The climbing toll of Canada’s top occupational killer is reflected in workers’ compensation statistics. In Alberta, for example, 63 workers died in 2013 of mesothelioma, asbestosis and asbestos-related conditions, compared with 28 deaths a decade earlier, according to the province’s Workers Compensation Board.
The number of accepted claims for mesothelioma in Canada rose 216.4 per cent between 1997 and 2010, a 2013 paper by Dr. Demers and Dr. Ann Del Bianco reports. Across Canada, seven in 10 accepted occupational cancer death claims involve exposure to asbestos.
The Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board has pegged the average cost of a mesothelioma claim at $532,844 (with much of that in survivor benefits, along with health-care costs and loss of earnings).
Mesothelioma deaths are even higher when statistics for non-workplace-related cases are included. Between 2000 and 2011, more than 4,000 people died of mesothelioma, Statistics Canada data show. The number of new cases has almost doubled, to about 500 people per year, since 1992.
The figures likely understate the number of people affected. Workers’ compensation data is based only on the number of successful claims, so that anyone who is not covered by the system of no-fault workplace coverage, who doesn’t file or is unsuccessful in their claim doesn’t show up in the stats.
Indeed, only about half of mesothelioma cases are filed with the workers’ compensation boards, in the estimation of Dr. Demers. And mesothelioma itself is frequently misdiagnosed as lung cancer, so death rates are likely underreported. Asbestosis, too, tends to be under-diagnosed and under-reported.
The continued imports, along with mesothelioma’s long latency period and continuing exposures to asbestos that is already in place across the country, add up to a dire prognosis: Canada’s invisible epidemic hasn’t even peaked yet.
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