The Invisible Epidemic [Asbestos] – by Tavia Grant (Globe and Mail – June 14, 2014)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

For John Nolan, the first warning signs came mid-November of last year while he was leading a tour in the Peruvian Andes. Mr. Nolan, 67, who lives in Fort Erie in southwestern Ontario, was guiding a group through the mountains near the storied Incan city of Cuzco.

He had criss-crossed the planet for years as a tour guide, and knew what higher altitudes typically felt like. But something terrifying happened while he was hauling his luggage up some steep stone steps to his cabin.

“I’ve never been out of breath in such a panicky, horrible way,” Mr. Nolan says in a raspy voice between laboured breaths. “Normally, when you run out of breath, you know you’re going to get it back. This was different. It was as if you were hitting a stone wall, with no hope of getting air. It was like suffocating.”

The diagnosis, back at home, was swift and cruel. It was mesothelioma — an incurable cancer caused almost exclusively by asbestos exposure. Mr. Nolan was initially given a few months to live.

Asbestos is the top on-the-job killer in Canada. But a Globe and Mail investigation has found that this stark fact has been obscured by the country’s longstanding economic interest in the onetime “miracle mineral.” Even though Canada’s own asbestos industry has dwindled from pre-eminence to insignificance — the country’s last two mines closed in 2011 — the federal government has dragged its feet as other nations have acknowledged asbestos’s deadly impact and moved to protect their populations from it.

Ottawa, in fact, holds to the position that asbestos can be safe, despite an international consensus among doctors and researchers to the contrary.

And despite evidence that even low levels of exposure can be harmful, asbestos products continue to enter the country. Unlike at least 52 other countries, from Australia and Japan to Sweden and the United Kingdom, Canada has never banned imports or exports of asbestos.

“Many people are under the misconception that we’ve banned asbestos. But the fact is, no, we still use asbestos for some things,” says Paul Demers, one of the country’s leading experts on asbestos-related disease.

Ongoing uses (such as brake pads) are not even the biggest threat. “The problem is that asbestos doesn’t simply go away,” says Dr. Demers, who is a University of Toronto professor in public health and director at the Occupational Cancer Research Centre at Cancer Care Ontario, a provincial agency. “We may not use as much new asbestos now, but there’s a lot of it in our environment, in older buildings and structures,” he says.

With asbestos so prevalent, Canada faces an invisible epidemic: mesothelioma. The disease has a long latency period, of 20 to 40 years; Mr. Nolan’s asbestos exposure occurred in the late 1980s when he was manager of Windsor’s Cleary Auditorium and Convention Centre.

His office was located within 25 feet of renovations, where workers in protective suits removed asbestos from the ceiling and walls. The room was covered in plastic sheeting — but the ventilation pumped air right from the dusty renovation into his windowless office. (He also recalls asbestos was present in the basement’s pipes.)

The crew took safety precautions, but “for those of us who were still working there, we just carried on,” he says.

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