Canada’s positions on issues like same-sex marriage, immigration and, most recently, recreational marijuana have given it a reputation for progressiveness. But the government’s announcement this week that it was banning asbestos, a potent cause of cancer, came decades after many other nations took the step.
For more than a century, asbestos was a ubiquitous miracle fiber. Sprayed on the steel structure of buildings and inside ships, it suppressed fires. It was found in a type of home insulation and in roofing tiles, and was used to seal heating ducts. Asbestos was mixed with concrete to make pipes, woven into flameproof fabrics, and made into gaskets, building supplies and a variety of industrial goods. But inhaling even small quantities of its fibers could be deadly.
Canada’s ban comes 31 years after the World Health Organization first declared that asbestos causes cancer. Its harmful effects on workers’ lungs were identified as early as the 1920s, and many countries began limiting its use in the 1970s.
But Canada was once a major source of the world’s asbestos, and actively fought efforts to limit its use. Despite widespread scientific evidence to the contrary, it continued to claim that the form found in Quebec, chrysotile asbestos, was not harmful. As recently as 2000, the Canadian government challenged a ban by France on the imports of chrysotile asbestos at the World Trade Organization. Four years later, Canada blocked efforts to formally declare asbestos a hazardous material under an international agreement.
Over the years, asbestos became the leading cause of workplace deaths in Canada.
Asbestos kills in several ways. It can cause lung cancer, it can lead to mesothelioma, a fast-acting cancer that attacks major organs, and asbestosis, a cancer that hardens the lungs and ultimately suffocates its victims. In addition to miners, construction workers and shipyard workers were also widely affected. Even now it continues to be found in brake pads and brake linings of heavy trucks.
So although news of the ban this week was somewhat lost in reports of shoppers lining up for legal marijuana, it marked a big change.
“This is a huge milestone for Canada, despite the shortcomings,” said Fe de Leon, a researcher with the Canadian Environmental Law Association who has long pushed for a ban. “It really sets the stage for shifting Canada’s image around asbestos.”
Within Canada, and particularly in the province of Quebec, asbestos long held a prominent place on the domestic stage. Operations in the communities of Thetford Mines and Asbestos, Quebec (which has defiantly kept its name) were once important economic symbols to most French-speaking Quebecers. During a particularly violent strike at the mine in Asbestos in 1949, the workers’ cause was embraced by many prominent intellectuals, including Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who offered legal and strategic advice to the union’s leadership. Most historians agree that it marked the beginning of broad political, economic and social changes in Quebec that became known as the Quiet Revolution.
When I went to the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos on assignment seven years ago, it was operating sporadically, with a skeleton staff. (During my visit, the owner of the mine proudly pointed out that most materials used in its office building, including the wall boards, were made from asbestos.) While seemingly on life support, the mine still had enough political sway to get a $58 million loan guarantee from the province. But a plan to finish construction of an underground mine to replace Jeffrey’s vast open pit didn’t work out, and asbestos mining ended in Canada in 2012.
Canada’s new ban has some exceptions. Companies will still be allowed to process the mountains of tailings from Quebec’s mines to extract magnesium, even though about 40 percent of those leftovers contain asbestos. And some highly specialized products containing asbestos, including fittings for nuclear power plants, will remain on the market. Ms. de Leon would like to see those phased out promptly.
More broadly, she said, much work remains to ensure that the asbestos Canadians remove from schools, hospitals, offices, factories and houses is properly disposed of. Ms. de Leon, along with the Canadian Cancer Society, wants Canada to create a national registry of buildings containing asbestos — and an agency to deal with the deadly legacy.
Devastation from last month’s tornadoes in Ontario and Quebec hinted at the challenge ahead. Beyond the destruction of property, there was another concern: possible asbestos exposure from the damaged homes and apartments.
Marijuana in the Mainstream
As readers of this newsletter who live in Canada know well, Wednesday was the first day of legal recreational marijuana sales in the country. We put together a special edition of the Canada Letter to gather up our coverage to that point. Here’s a link in case you missed it:
More in-depth looks at issues surrounding legalization will appear over the next few days. Until then, be sure to watch our short video about Day 1.
As I mentioned in an earlier newsletter, Sarah Lyall, my colleague who reported from The Times’s London bureau for a number of years, has been given the job of making sense of the current midterm elections in the United States for non-Americans. She does it through a twice-a-week newsletter. You can sign up for it here.
And on Oct. 30, Sarah will be further dissecting the midterms in a conference call for Times subscribers. Joining her will be Jodi Rudoren, The Times’s associate managing editor for audience, and its politics editor, Patrick Healy.
You can find the sign-up details here. And start thinking about your questions.
— The Great Bear Lodge near Port Hardy, British Columbia, saw its Instagram following and booking requests jump thanks to video of a visit from two humpback whales. Such are the social networks’ powers in the travel industry.
—Canada made this list of countries that may challenge juggernauts United States and China to become major players in artificial intelligence.
Around The Times
—United States Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts released a DNA analysis this week showing that she has an indigenous ancestor. The science may be sound. But several experts cautioned that it does not mean that she has any kinship with indigenous peoples.
—In Opinion, men shared their stories of past misbehavior and misconduct toward girls and women, and spoke about regret.
—Climate change is causing some moose to be fatally overcome by blood-sucking ticks.
—What once served as a playground for children from low-income families has now been taken over by a 28-story hotel and luxury condos, one of which sold for about $20 million. This interactive story explores the repercussions.