You may not recognize her name, but Kathleen Ruff will receive a medal of honour in Quebec’s National Assembly on Thursday for her decade of work to stop Canada’s asbestos trade, work that some argue will save tens of thousands of people from contracting deadly asbestos-related diseases in Canada and abroad.
A longtime human rights activist based in Smithers, B.C., Ruff has toiled, for the most part, behind the scenes. But without Ruff’s dogged determination to rally health experts, victims and politicians to speak out and take action, Quebec might still be mining and selling the deadly fibre to developing countries for decades to come, with the active support and blessing of the federal government.
Instead, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced May 10 that his government will “move to ban asbestos”. For the first time, a Canadian prime minister publicly acknowledged that the damage asbestos causes to human health far outweighs any benefit the mineral, once hailed as a miracle fibre, can provide.
That marks the culmination of a decades-long battle that has often pitted Quebec’s public health community and human rights activists on one side, against union leaders, industrialists and politicians on the other.
According to the World Health Organization, the asbestos-related death toll worldwide is estimated at 107,000 annually, including about 2,000 per year in Canada. In Quebec it is the No. 1 workplace killer: 118 of the 196 work-related deaths in the province in 2015 were officially deemed to be caused by asbestos.
That may be the tip of the iceberg, since fatal asbestos-related diseases, like mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer, and asbestosis, take decades after exposure to develop. Asbestos is present in homes and buildings across Canada, and Canada still imports asbestos-containing materials.
But the tide has finally turned. Quebec stopped mining asbestos in 2012, and it looks as if Canada will soon join the more than 50 countries that already ban its use.
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