Mesothelioma in Canada
Until recently, the Canadian government supported the country’s asbestos industry with federal funding. In 2018, the Canadian government proposed legislation to ban asbestos.
After climbing steadily over the past two decades, Canada’s mesothelioma cancer rate is now one of the highest in the world.
Few in the medical community are surprised: Canada’s dedication to the mining of chrysotile asbestos and the Canadian government’s track record for permitting its production and use in thousands of products laid the groundwork for exposing citizens to the toxic mineral. The most significant increases occurred in the shipbuilding areas around Vancouver, and in Quebec, home to many of Canada’s early asbestos mines.
About 2.1 of every 100,000 Canadians are diagnosed annually with the aggressive disease, according to experts. For context, consider that in 1984, 153 Canadian men were diagnosed with mesothelioma throughout all the country’s provinces. By 2003, 344 cases were reported among men, and 78 among women. Deaths from mesothelioma totaled 515 in 2010.
Asbestos exposure is the No. 1 cause of occupational death in Canada. Since 1996, asbestos-related disease has accounted for around a third of workplace deaths.
Because of the disease’s latency period of between 20 and 50 years, medical professionals expect the death rate will not level off for several more years.
In 2018, the Canadian government proposed the Prohibition of Asbestos and Asbestos Products Regulations, sponsored by Environment and Climate Change Canada and Health Canada. This legislation to ban asbestos is expected to go into effect by the end of 2018.
Canada’s Love of Asbestos Mines
Canada’s rate of mesothelioma corresponds with the country’s long-held infatuation with asbestos, whose fibers cause all forms of the disease. The country’s first asbestos mine opened in Quebec in 1879 — the first step towards a close relationship between the country and “Canada’s Gold.”
As the 19th century slid into the 20th century, an increasing number of asbestos mines opened, taking advantage of the large deposits of the mineral found in provinces that included Quebec, Newfoundland, British Columbia and the Yukon. Companies such as Johns-Manville arrived, taking advantage of the asbestos mines to manufacture a variety of asbestos-containing products that would be used in Canada and worldwide.
But while the asbestos industry boomed and mine owners and company executives made money, workers got sick, coughing up blood, suffering from breathing difficulties and dying. Canadian mortality rates among miners were studied as early as the 1920s, and evidence exists that asbestos company executives withheld negative reports from both their employees and the public.
The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company formed the Department of Industrial Hygiene at McGill University, and it suspected asbestos was sickening workers and causing some sort of “dust disease” of the lungs. A study conducted by the organization in the 1930s discovered that, of 200 men who participated, 42 developed asbestosis. However, the findings were never published and lawyers for asbestos manufacturers in Canada and the U.S. suggested to company executives that asbestosis receive “minimum publicity.”
It was hardly surprising: Canadian houses were constructed with asbestos-containing cement and other materials. At one point, the vast majority of homes in Canada contained any number of asbestos-laden products ranging from shingles and siding to insulation. These products contained not only chrysotile asbestos, but types of amphibole asbestos as well. Those involved in the construction industry were almost always exposed to the hazardous mineral, and, as a result, rates of asbestos-related diseases are now extremely high among construction workers. In addition, at least 4,000 household products used by Canadians during much of the 20th century contained asbestos in varying amounts.
Canadian Asbestos Mines Close
Asbestos opponents and those weary of seeing Canada’s mesothelioma rate rise celebrated in 2011 when the country’s asbestos industry ground to a standstill. Canada’s last two remaining active mines, the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos, Quebec, and the Lac d’amiante du Canada in the nearby town of Thetford Mines, Quebec, shut down because of financial, labor and development issues — the first time in 130 years that the Canadian asbestos production stalled.
One year later, in the face of broad criticism from public health officials, asbestos victims and cancer advocacy groups, the provincial government of Quebec threw a lifeline to Canada’s beleaguered asbestos sector in the form of a $58 million guaranteed loan. The money was to cover more than two-thirds of the cost of renovating and reopening the Jeffrey Mine — the rest of the financing is private — and helping it to operate for another 20 years.
But before the government transferred money to the mine, the Quebec Liberal Party was defeated in a provincial election. The winning party, Parti Quibecois, cancelled the loan. Meanwhile, doctors and others quietly keep an eye out for the mine’s 425 former employees and whether any of them develop mesothelioma.