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 past 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 passed the Prohibition of Asbestos and Products Containing Asbestos Regulations, sponsored by Environment and Climate Change Canada and Health Canada. Canada’s asbestos ban was many years in the making, but it still includes exceptions for certain uses of asbestos.
Canada’s History of Asbestos Mines
Canada’s rate of mesothelioma corresponds with the country’s long-held relationship 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
Professions Impacted by Mesothelioma
Those primary professions include:
- Ship loaders
- Truck drivers
Anyone involved in those industries is at risk for exposure to asbestos and to the diseases caused by asbestos fibers.
In many cases, loose asbestos fibers were shipped to developing countries from Canada in large reinforced paper bags, where they were handled by undertrained and inadequately protected workers.
A secondary group of workers is also considered at-risk. These are people who worked in trades that were one step removed from the process of removing asbestos from mines and transporting it to second- and third-world countries who continue to use asbestos products in construction.