Asbestos Kills Canadians Too! 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



On July 19, 2004, a report entitled The Epidemiology of Asbestos-Related Diseases in Quebec1 appeared on the website of the National Institute of Public Health in Quebec. The seventy-three page document explodes the asbestos industry's assertions that Canadian chrysotile is safe; there were 832 cases of pleural mesothelioma in Québec between 1982-1996:

“In comparison to the international community, the situation among Quebec men is only surpassed in several counties in the United Kingdom, several states in Australia and several regions in the Netherlands. Incidence rates of mesothelioma of the pleura rose significantly between 1982 and 1996 in Quebec's male population with a 5% average annual rate of increase…”2

The authors note that:

“the incidence of mesothelioma in Quebec is greater than that observed in the rest of Canada, and in Sweden, Norway, Israel, and several East European countries3…Quebec men and women also show significantly higher rates of mesothelioma of the pleura than men and women in the rest of Canada and in several other countries.”4

Significant numbers of individuals suffering from lung cancer5 and asbestosis were also identified, the vast majority of whose illnesses remained unacknowledged as occupationally-related and therefore uncompensated by the Workers' Compensation Board: “cases of occupational origin may be far underestimated.” The effect of environmental asbestos exposure was also considered:

“The study of women diagnosed with mesothelioma in the town of Thetford Mines showed an increased risk of this cancer with an increase in their occupational and domestic exposure. It also suggested a possible impact from environmental exposures to asbestos.”6

Although the data and analyses in this report show the serious impact asbestos has had on Quebec's population, the authors do not follow the argument through to its logical conclusion. Instead of calling for the use of safer alternatives or a ban on the new use of asbestos, they speak of validating, harmonizing, overseeing, studying, ensuring, documenting, recognizing, evaluating, collecting and considering and recommend:

“That the ministere de la Sante et des Services sociaux, in concert with partners such as the CSST, the associations sectorielles paritaires (joint sector-based associations), etc., take measures to empower workers and employers to recognize workplaces where there may be asbestos exposure, to know the risks associated with asbestos exposure, and to know how to handle asbestos safely.”

According to Dr. Morris Greenberg, a member of the Collegium Ramazzini:7

“The report makes the assumption that asbestos will continue to be used in manufacture and that employers and workers merely require to be empowered to know how to handle asbestos safely. If there is a reasonably practicable way of using asbestos in manufacture safely, this is not vouchsafed the reader. The authors avert their gaze from the measures finally introduced by Europe and others to deal with the adverse health effects of asbestos, namely mandatory substitution and banning. Despite the experience of half a century of research not having led to the eradication of asbestos diseases, the authors continue to hope that a bit more [research] will prove effective."

The report's nineteen recommendations continue to tinker with a system in need of radical overhaul.8 The authors' lack of decisiveness may have something to do with the nature of the writing process; two of the nine members of the Sub-Committee on the Epidemiology of Asbestos-Related Diseases which produced this document were: Michel Camus and Jack Siemiatycki, both of whom publicly disputed the call by the Collegium Ramazzini for an international ban on asbestos in a hotly-contested debate in the pages of the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) in 2001. In his letter to the CMAJ, Camus wrote: “The Collegium's call to ban asbestos is insufficient in all respects;” Siemiatycki noted: “A ban would deprive those (developing) countries of the opportunity to decide for themselves whether to import asbestos or not… (a ban) smacks of paternalism to assume that developing countries are incapable of ascertaining their self-interest in this matter.” Despite “thousands of original research publications regarding asbestos and fibre substitutes,” “a plethora of national and international expert panel reports,” and millions of deaths, Camus and Siemiatycki claimed that yet more deliberation was needed.

Far from being “a bit player”9 in the asbestos saga, Siemiatycki has expressed his views nationally and internationally. Documents obtained under the Access to Information Act by Canadian researcher Ken Rubin in 2002 include two contracts between Jack Siemiatycki and the Government of Quebec (Ministry of Natural Resources):

Description of Services
November 6, 1996
to participate in a Canadian mission (October 22-25, 1996) to France to discuss the proposed asbestos ban; to present a report on this trip before December 12, 1996.
September 25, 1997
to participate in a discussion on chrysotile asbestos at a meeting (September 29-30, 1997) in London, England between Canadian and UK scientists; to present a report on this event before November 14, 1997.

Another document which appeared on the website of the National Institute of Public Health in Quebec in July, 2004 was a summary of the epidemiology report, discussed above, and one other report: Asbestos Fibres in Indoor and Outdoor Air; the 11-page summary is a masterpiece of understatement and obfuscation. Discussing hazardous levels of exposure to workers in the asbestos mining sector, it states:

“Results showed that where standards (of asbestos exposure) were exceeded, it was often for the specific tasks of certain workers, for example in the repair of sieves, unclogging of conveyor belts, or in underground drilling (Does this make it acceptable?)…At present, the number of workers sampled does not meet the guideline provided for this purpose by the Institut de recherce Robert-Sauve en sante et en securite du travail (Occupational Health and Safety Institute Robert Sauve). The feasibility of applying current sampling guidelines seems to be a serious problem for the industries concerned (Interpretation: Quebec asbestos mining companies are obstructing vital research.)

A study of conditions in the asbestos processing industry in Montreal identified at-risk workers at 29 establishments:

“The building and public works sector was subsequently eliminated due to its distinctive situation (what distinctive situation?), as were 5 businesses where asbestos was identified but was not being processed (why eliminate them?)… we ought to be concerned by the strong possibilities that standards are being exceeded in the processing industry (the use of the word: ought says it all; while urgent action is being taken to minimize harmful asbestos exposures in much of the developed world, Canadian scientists, hamstrung by the incestuous ties between regional government and the asbestos industry, are unable to state the obvious: the continuation of occupational asbestos exposures is unacceptable!)”

Nearly half the summary is taken up with recommendations grouped under the following subject headings:

  • Safe management: need for regulatory control

  • Safe management: need for intervention

  • Safe management: need for monitoring

  • Environmental assessment in asbestos mines

  • Environmental assessment in construction

  • Surveillance of mesothelioma

  • Surveillance of asbestosis

  • Surveillance of pulmonary cancers

  • Surveillance of the three diseases

  • Training and prevention

  • Research

An awareness that protection from asbestos exposure in Quebec is woefully inadequate is evinced by the following recommendations :

  • the introduction of mandatory asbestos audits and a duty to manage asbestos products contained in public buildings such as day-care centers, universities, health institutions and municipal offices;

  • the compilation of annual reports on progress in tackling sprayed asbestos in Quebec's elementary and secondary schools;

  • the revision of current standards for occupational asbestos exposure;

  • the evaluation of environmental surveillance programs operating in asbestos mines “in collaboration with asbestos industry groups and the public health departments concerned;”

  • an investigation into asbestos exposure in the construction and maintenance industries;

  • a study of asbestos concentrations in the ambient air of Quebec mining towns;

  • the adoption of new legislation regarding the disposal of asbestos waste;

  • an environmental and health impact study prior to the expansion of asbestos use in road paving;

  • improved methods of recording the incidence of mesothelioma, asbestosis and asbestos-related lung cancer;

  • more training for health professionals regarding asbestos diseases.

Quebec has serious asbestos problems; many of its people have been injured or killed by asbestos, many of its public buildings are contaminated by deteriorating sprayed asbestos. Although mountains of asbestos waste pollute the landscape, “there is no specific provision concerning asbestos” in Quebec's Solid Waste Regulations. While the summary admits: “given its carcinogenic potential, asbestos exposure must be reduced to a minimum,” the feasibility of an asbestos ban is never mentioned; accepting industry's mantra of “safe or controlled use of asbestos,” more analysis is proposed: “a more precise analysis of airborne concentrations is required to conclusively judge the real impact of the new use (of asbestos-asphalt). This analysis should be done for any new large-scale use of asbestos.”

International bodies such as the World Health Organization, the International Labor Organization, the United Nations, the Collegium Ramazzini and the European Union agree that exposure to asbestos has caused a global epidemic; now that the epidemiological data from Quebec confirms the existence of a Canadian asbestos epidemic, it is time, finally, for the authorities to close down asbestos mining and processing activities in Canada. While little can be done for those who have been exposed, the cessation of asbestos operations would ensure that future generations, at home and abroad, will not die from asbestos poisoning.

August 14, 2004


1 This document is the English translation of a report first published in French which appeared on the website on November 14, 2003.

2 page IX.

3 page 19.

4 page 53.

5 Of the 3,500 cases of lung cancer diagnosed in Quebec in 1998, up to 525 could be related to occupational asbestos exposure; the total number of lung cancer cases compensated by the WCB between 1988-1997 was 210.

6 page 53.

7 The Collegium Ramazzini is an international community of scholars dedicated to finding solutions for occupational and environmental health problems; website:

8 Two of the recommendations were implemented on November 20, 2003 when mesothelioma, asbestosis and asbestos-related lung cancer were added to the list of notifiable diseases in Quebec.

9 CMAJ website: (Accessed February 20, 2001).



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