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Some 60 years ago, lumps of wet, grey material were given to students in art classes to shape and mould into art to proudly display at home. It was especially good for objets d’art such as candle holders, since the substance was famous for stopping the spread of flames.
That material was asbestos, now known as a toxic material for which there is, quite simply, no safe level of exposure. It’s still regularly found in older schools and universities across Canada, wrapped around pipes, above ceilings and behind walls.
Though asbestos is the biggest workplace killer in the country, Health Canada is committed to the position that it’s only an issue when fibres become airborne and “significant quantities” are inhaled or ingested. While the Canadian government maintains it has “consistently acted to protect Canadians from the health risks of asbestos,” dozens of countries – including Britain, Australia, Japan, Sweden, Germany and Denmark – have banned it outright in recognition of the fact that exposure to fibres can cause various diseases, including mesothelioma and other cancers.
The World Health Organization has declared all forms of asbestos carcinogenic and recommends its use be eliminated; the International Agency for Research on Cancer has said there is no safe form of asbestos, nor is there a threshold level of exposure that is risk-free.
In Canada, many cash-strapped schools and universities follow Health Canada’s position that asbestos is safe if contained – abatement is wrapped into other renovation and repair projects, and teachers and staff are taught how to prevent accidental exposure. But despite the best of intentions, accidental exposure happens.
Dr. Patricia Martens – a senior research scientist at the University of Manitoba’s Manitoba Centre for Health Policy, professor in its Faculty of Medicine and recipient of the Order of Canada – knows this first-hand.
In the fall of 2012, she thought she had an especially stubborn summer cold or, worst case, that she’d picked up tuberculosis doing First Nations community research (TB is particularly prevalent among First Nations).
“It felt like I had pneumonia … but it just kept getting worse and worse so I could barely breathe and I felt like I was drowning all the time. So then they sent me to specialists in January and that’s when they did the biopsy and came up with this bizarre ruling,” Martens said.
The incurable mesothelioma diagnosis was staggering, especially considering that a colleague had recently died of mesothelioma.
“I’m very realistic. I might live a few more weeks, I might live a few more months, I might live another year. But I’ve already outlasted the median time from diagnosis, which is around a year. So I’m grateful for every day,” Martens says.
And as a public-health expert, she has a message: Her illness was entirely preventable at a policy and legislation level. “I don’t want anybody to be intentionally or unintentionally exposed.”
Her accidental exposure came as a University of Manitoba student, she believes, in the huge dining-exam room in which she ate her lunch every day. It had an open-slat ceiling with beautifully finished wood – and asbestos filling stuffed in the gaps.
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