Asbestos used to be one of the most commonly used materials for buildings in Canada. It was used in everything from pipe wrap and shingles to floor tiles and adhesives. The problem with asbestos is that it is a health hazard. It has been linked to many diseases, from cancers like mesothelioma and lung cancer to asbestosis, a disease caused by the fibres creating scars on the lungs. It is now banned as a building material and in many of the buildings that it was used in, it is now slowly being removed.
Asbestos was used primarily as a building material because it is a great fireproofing agent, insulator, is durable and it is cheap. This same fireproofing property also meant that it was used in other industries as well, such as brake pads and lining pipe. Asbestos did its job well. The problem with was the health hazards that it caused.
Canada has had its share of industrial catastrophes. Some have been dramatic, such as the numerous mining accidents across the country. The worst industrial disease disaster happened in Ontario at the Holmes Foundry Caposite Plant in Sarnia which produced insulated pipe. It is considered the Westray of industrial disease. The plant was opened in 1918 and had no ventilation to keep the fibers out of the air. Pictures of the plant taken at the time it was open show the fibres floating in the air. Many of the workers have become sick with asbestos related diseases. Their wives also suffered from these diseases because the plant had no change rooms or shower facilities for the men to clean themselves off after a shift so the asbestos was going home on their clothes. The plant closed in 1988 and there are still, as of 2014, former workers of the plant who are suffering from asbestos related diseases.
Most work sites that I have dealt with that have asbestos in them will have warnings issued that the material is present. Some have been slowly removing the material from their facility for years to make them safer. Contractors must be sure though that there is no asbestos present before allowing workers to do work that may cause the fibers to become airborne, such as cutting or grinding. Even the use of a floor waxer can cause fibers in floor tiles to become airborne. There was a site in Ontario that my former employer had a job at that we were assured that the asbestos had been removed. After the work had started and their employees had cut into the ceiling to hang pipe, we found out that there was asbestos present. Those workers will now need to be monitored annually to see if they could be suffering from exposure.
Many of the diseases don’t show up right away. Asbestosis will not show for 10 to 40 years after the initial exposure. Mesothelioma will not appear for 20 to 40 years. Monitoring of workers will start a year after exposure is first reported, with chest x-rays and other tests being used to determine if a worker is basically dying from the job that they did.
StatsCan has reported that between 2000 and 2012 the number of deaths from mesothelioma has risen by 60%. Mesothelioma has no known cure and a diagnosis is a death sentence. Companies who work in buildings with asbestos must have a effective abatement plan in place to prevent worker exposure and the ticking health time bomb that is asbestos related disease.