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March 04, 2015
Asbestos still a leading cause of health and death claims

While many consider it a relic from the 1950s, asbestos continues to be one of the largest sources of workplace death claims.

According to data compiled by the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada and published in the December 15, 2014 edition of the Globe and Mail, 368 deaths in the last year can be attributed to asbestos exposure in the workplace.   More than 5,000 asbestos-related death claims were approved from 1996 to 2013, making it the leading source of workplace deaths in Canada.

For decades, Canada was one of the world’s leading producers of the mineral, which was used widely in household insulation and siding, brake linings, moulding clay, cement, fire resistant clothing and other items.

Both Canada and the United States still continue to import and export the material for use in pipes, tiles and other construction products.  It has been banned in Australia, Britain, Japan, Sweden and other countries.  It has never been banned in Canada.

Asbestos has been linked to lung diseases such as mesothelioma and asbestosis.  It has also been classed as carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the World Health Organization.

Those assessments are disputed by Health Canada.  According to a background article published on its website “If asbestos fibres are enclosed or tightly bound in a product, for example in asbestos siding or asbestos floor tiles, there are no significant health risks.”  However, significant exposure to or inhalation of loose asbestos fibres can cause asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer, it concedes.

The long latency period associated with asbestos-related diseases has meant that mortality and morbidity rates associated with the product are actually increasing, despite the fact that its use has declined dramatically in recent decades.  

For example, despite its ban of the product in 2003, Australia is still reporting increases in asbestos-related illnesses.  

This could be sobering news for Canadian plan sponsors with workforces that could be exposed to asbestos in construction or demolition sites, shipping or manufacturing facilities using asbestos-based materials.

“The indications are that we can expect the increase in asbestos-related diseases to continue for at least another decade.  That’s assuming we as a nation ban it now,” says University of Alberta epidemiologist and professor–emeritus Dr. Colin Soskolne.  “If we don’t do that, we can expect it to continue to rise indefinitely but perhaps at a lower rate.”

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