Canada will ban asbestos use by 2018, in what many health advocates hail as a victory for public health, albeit one that is long overdue.

The federal government’s move is aimed at eventually reducing the rate of asbestos-related diseases. The hard work lies ahead, though, as the country deals with the deadly legacy of asbestos that exists in everything from homes and hospitals to elementary schools and universities.

“When it comes to asbestos, the science is … very clear,” Health Minister Jane Philpott said at a news conference Thursday.

“We are taking action on this now to protect future generations of Canadians.”

The announcement comes after years of Globe and Mail coverage on the health impact of asbestos exposures, risks which had been played down by previous federal governments. Last week, The Globe reported on new annual numbers showing that asbestos remains the top cause of workplace deaths in Canada.

The decision brings Canada in line with more than 50 other countries, that have banned the known carcinogen and comes after decades of lobbying from health experts, labour unions and those who have lost family members to asbestos-related diseases.

Canada began mining asbestos in the 1870s, and became one of the world’s largest producers, before its last asbestos mines closed in 2011.

Thursday was a bittersweet day for Michaela Keyserlingk, whose husband of 47 years died in 2009 of mesothelioma, after exposure as a cadet in the Canadian navy.

“I’m grateful for the first steps they did,” said Ms. Keyserlingk, who lives in Ottawa. She’s frustrated, however, that a ban took so long to be announced, given the clear evidence of the risks to health of asbestos, and concerned that more people will be exposed before the prohibition is actually implemented.

“I think there is a terrible urgency to this … By putting it off … it’s a terrible, terrible thing what happens to families, who will never be the same. And it’s very hard to forget that.”

For years, both provincial and federal governments had staunchly supported the country’s asbestos-mining industry, despite mounting evidence of the health risks the mineral poses.

“Today is a win for public health, but it’s also a win for the truth. Because the truth has been neglected on this file for a long time,” said Gabriel Miller, vice-president of public issues for the Canadian Cancer Society, in an interview.

“What a ban says is: We admit, all asbestos causes deadly cancers, and it comes in no safe form. And ending the denial and the delay that’s defined our approach to asbestos in Canada is the first step to healing the scars of this substance.”

He said “at least” 10,000 people have lost their lives from asbestos exposure in Canada in the past 10 years, and “we owe it to them, now, to turn what was said today into real action.”

The new asbestos strategy was unveiled at the Ottawa Hospital’s cancer centre, with federal ministers from health, science, environment and procurement all present. The “whole-of-government” approach means asbestos and asbestos-containing products will be banned by 2018.

However, the government said that under its proposed regulations, the mining and processing in Quebec of asbestos tailings, or residue, which is carried out to extract magnesium, will not be included in the ban.

Ottawa said it will gather information on asbestos uses, to assess how to control the mineral, and create a new regulation under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act that will ban the “manufacture, use, import and export” of asbestos-containing products, such as building materials and brake pads.

It will introduce new federal workplace health and safety rules that will “drastically” limit the risk of on-the-job asbestos exposures. It will expand the current list of asbestos-containing buildings that are owned or leased by the Canadian government. It will work with the provinces to change building codes, so that the use of asbestos in new construction and renovations is prohibited. And it aims to raise awareness on the health impacts of asbestos.

On the global stage, the federal government plans to “review its position” on the listing of asbestos as a hazardous material before next year’s meeting of parties to the Rotterdam Convention, which is an international treaty. For years, Canada had opposed such a listing. The government didn’t clarify Thursday whether it will now support a listing.

The government said it will work with the health, labour, trades and commerce sectors in its efforts to introduce the ban, and speak with stakeholders before the ban is implemented.

Some steps that advocates had lobbied for – such as an expert panel on asbestos and the creation of a registry of diseases – were not included. Science Minister Kirsty Duncan didn’t rule out further measures.

“Today is the start of a two-year process that will have consultation throughout. There will be opportunities for people to weigh in, the experts, scientists and the community,” she said in an interview with The Globe. “This is day one of a two-year process to a ban on asbestos in 2018.”

The World Health Organization – which declared asbestos a carcinogen in 1987 – says all forms of asbestos cause lung cancer, mesothelioma and other cancers, as well as asbestosis. It says the most efficient way to eliminate these diseases is to stop the use of asbestos.

In Canada, more than 2,000 people a year are diagnosed with asbestos-related cancers such as mesothelioma and lung cancer, according to the Occupational Cancer Research Centre.

The federal government’s ban on asbestos, “while long overdue, is a significant and strong regulatory step for the future protection of Canadian workers, and Canadians in general,” said Mieke Koehoorn, professor and head of the Occupational and Environmental Health Division at the University of British Columbia.

That said, “there is additional federal work needed to fully achieve protection from asbestos for all Canadians,” that will require addressing issues such as assistance in the safe removal of asbestos from people’s homes, exposure assessments for workers and creating a registry for all buildings that contain asbestos.

Products with asbestos continue to enter the country. Last year, $8.3-million in asbestos-related imports came into the country, about half of which was in brake pads and linings.

The continued imports, along with mesothelioma’s long latency period and ongoing exposures to asbestos, mean rates of the disease have not yet peaked, medical experts warn.

Among industries, the government’s move was applauded by the Automotive Recyclers of Canada, which represents wrecking yards and vehicle-recycling companies.

Canada imported more than $100-million in asbestos brake pads and linings between 2005 and 2015, so banning the importation of such products will help protect the health of workers who dismantle and recycle vehicles, Steve Fletcher, managing director of the association, said in a statement.

With a report from Greg Keenan in Toronto

The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016 8:00AM EST
Last updated Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016 9:38PM EST