OTTAWA — Jim Brophy can't understand why Canada isn’t immediately outlawing asbestos in automotive brake parts and other products.
It’s not as if the grave risks from exposure to the fibrous mineral haven’t been long known, says the workplace health expert. Nor is it a case that safer substitutes aren’t available.
Canada, once a leading producer of asbestos, announced in December it would join more than 50 other nations in prohibiting the import, export and use of the cancer-causing substance. In announcing the ban, Science Minister Kirsty Duncan cited “irrefutable evidence” of the dangers of asbestos.
Government officials have signalled, however, that the ban won’t take effect until late 2018 because of the need for a transition period to remove asbestos products from the market.
The consequence, according to Brophy, is that more people who work on or around asbestos will develop serious illnesses in coming years.
“The latency here is enormous,” says the University of Windsor adjunct professor and former director of the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers in Sarnia, Ont., a hotspot for asbestos disease.
“Every day we allow these products to come into the country just extends the time frame in which this disease will arrive and be experienced by people in our population.”
Asbestos disappeared from brakes, hood liners and other new car components in the 1990s, largely because of campaigns by auto assembly workers. But it has increasingly made its way back in imported replacement brake pads and shoes as a cheaper alternative to synthetic fibres.
In small amounts, it can also be found in building products, paper, even footwear, according to the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). But the lion’s share – nearly 75 per cent of the $8.3 million in asbestos imports in 2015, the CLC reports – is friction materials.
The Automotive Industries Association (AIA), which represents aftermarket suppliers, was among those pressing for a grace period to allow the removal of existing products from vehicles and store shelves.
AIA President Jean-François Champagne thinks that asbestos parts will be gone from inventories long before the ban takes effect.
Two major retailers that sell to consumers and the service industry say their inventories are already asbestos-free.
“Our supplier of friction products, Rayloc, stopped using asbestos over 10 years ago,” said Éric Dufresne of
UAP Inc., operator of nearly 600 NAPA parts stores across Canada.
Canadian Tire Corp. verified with its brake-parts suppliers in December that none of its products contained any of the seven asbestos-derived substances to be covered by the ban, according to a statement from Kimi Walker, associate vice-president of product stewardship.
Yet with no current labelling requirement for asbestos content, Brophy says people who work on brakes have no way of knowing the materials they’re working with or the risk. And while all provinces have guidelines for the handling of hazardous materials, he believes “most garages do not have even close to the kind of protections that government regulations would say would be needed.”
The Canadian Automobile Dealers Association (CADA) has not issued any public statement on asbestos and would not say whether it offers educational programs for its members on hazardous substances.
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Brophy says the dangers are higher for home mechanics who likely lack any training and equipment to deal with asbestos, “and that’s why the only real way to effectively deal with this is to enact the ban and make sure that these products are not sold on the Canadian market.”
Yet the consequences of its use will continue to surface for decades in the form of the lung disease asbestosis and cancers such as mesothelioma, as well as gastrointestinal and other cancers that aren’t always linked to a patient’s asbestos history.
“The full extent of the harm that has been caused is so under-reported and so under-recognized,” says Brophy, “that even when you say that it’s the leading cause of occupational disease and death in this country, you’re actually underestimating the full extent of it.”