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Moving Forward on Asbestos in Canada

At the beginning of 2019, new regulations came into effect in Canada that prohibit the import, use, sale, manufacture, and export of asbestos and products containing asbestos. These updated federal regulations mark an important step forward after years of attempts to ban asbestos.

These regulations are the result of the hard work of thousands of Canadians like Fe de Leon of the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA). For several years de Leon has worked with national and international labour, health and environmental experts and organizations to push for strong government action against asbestos exposure. She recently discussed these new developments and described the steps that still urgently need to be taken.

As recently as 2011, Canada was still a major exporter of asbestos. Chrysotile asbestos remains the number one cause of work-related deaths in Canada. Exposure to the substance can cause mesothelioma, lung cancer, and other cancers. The rate of asbestos-related diseases in Canada continues to rise.

In early 2018, the Liberal government proposed new asbestos regulations and invited public consultation. In the months that followed, CELA co-led efforts to outline a substantial framework to address the challenges associated with asbestos. In particular, CELA and its partners advocated for the government to enact a comprehensive ban on the use and export of asbestos, and create an expert review panel tasked with investigating and eliminating existing asbestos nationwide.

Before the new regulations were announced in October, the framework was revised in a few key areas, including additions to prohibit the stockpiling of asbestos. CELA drew attention to this shortcoming in a list of recommendations last spring. While stockpiling will no longer be permitted in the future, enforcement of this new regulation requires monitoring. Since waste management is provincially controlled, it remains difficult for the federal government to ensure the safe disposal of existing asbestos.

Although the new framework establishes regulations to prohibit asbestos use, exemptions are also provided to control asbestos where its use will continue. Exclusions for mining residues, for example, mean that the processing of tailings leftover from asbestos mines to extract magnesium – a practice developed by a Quebec-based company – will continue to put workers at risk. Further, the federal government announced funding for this company’s operations, to the tune of $17.5 million in loans.

Nuclear facilities also received an exemption from these regulations until 2023, while the chlor-alkali industry received an 11-year exemption, up from seven years included in the original framework. Exemptions for asbestos use were also provided for military equipment on a case-by-case basis. Efforts to advocate a shift away from asbestos use in these key exclusion areas need to be intensified, says de Leon.

CELA continues to fight for a full ban on asbestos and asbestos-containing products in Canada. According to de Leon, the newly announced regulations deal with “low-hanging fruit,” while the next big challenge will be to address legacy asbestos present in residential and public buildings, infrastructure, and asphalt. The re-use of asbestos-containing asphalt for roads will be indefinitely exempt under the new framework, raising questions about safety when considering asphalt’s prevalence, tendency to degrade, and potential use as an alternative fuel.

The struggle also continues at the international level to list chrysotile asbestos under Article Three of the Rotterdam Convention. The convention ensures that listed substances can only be sold from country to country with prior informed consent. However, parties to the convention must come to consensus about which substances will be included under the convention. Although five of the six asbestos types are already listed, nations with a vested interest in the sale of chrysotile asbestos have consistently opposed its listing. While Canada voted in favour of listing asbestos at the most recent conference of the parties in 2017, seven of 157 nations – Belarus, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Syria and Zimbabwe – voted against. A coalition of nations has argued that the listing process should be modified, so that substances can be added with 75 per cent of parties’ approval in lieu of consensus. The next conference of the parties to the Rotterdam Convention will take place in Geneva, later this year.

Moving forward, de Leon is convinced that Canada needs a national asbestos strategy that includes the creation of a registry for exposed workers and buildings containing asbestos, alongside the establishment of an expert review panel to deliberate on issues related to legacy asbestos. de Leon also identified a need to support the just transition to safe alternatives for asbestos, and the creation of mechanisms to effectively regulate safe disposal. While the government has taken a welcome step forward with these regulations, de Leon cautions that Canadians cannot consider this case closed. “Our job is to keep it relevant,” she said.