Canada’s belated asbestos ban won’t bring back Sarnia’s dead, officials say

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Troy Shantz

The federal government’s plan to ban asbestos by 2018 is too little, too late, local officials say.

“It is way too late. It is insanely too late. For so many people it’s abysmal that it took this long for something that is so damn obvious,” said Dr. Warren Teel, a physician at the Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers.

The move announced by Science Minister Kristy Duncan in December will add Canada to the list of 50 countries that have banned asbestos.

Sarnia-Lambton has the highest rate in Ontario of mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.

Teel said between 1998 and 2011 the Point Edward-based clinic tracked more than 600 cases of asbestos-related death and sickness.

That includes 105 cases of mesothelioma, 243 cases of asbestos-related lung cancer and 267 cases of asbestosis.

The clinic also tracked 1,206 people who have developed pleural plaques, a thickening of the lung lining causes by inhaling asbestos fibres.

“The science was so crystal clear for so damn long and the Canadian government, their record was absolutely abysmal,” Tell said.

“They blocked every effort for decades to deal with this in a responsible way.”

Though the numbers have declined slightly lately they could rise again by 2020 because some asbestos-related diseases lay dormant in the body for 10 to 40 years, he said.

Sarnia’s manufacturing heritage and the widespread use of asbestos by local industry has left many families shattered by pain, suffering and loss.

“(It’s) just one of the things that happens here,” said Sandy Kinart, chair of Victims of Chemical Valley, an advocacy and support group for victims of occupational disease.

“It was a dirty secret in this town that nobody really spoke about.”

When older workers get together they often chat about who is sick, who died and wonder who will be next, she said.

Kinart has lost several people close to her to asbestos-related disease – including and an uncle and her husband, Blayne, who died in 2004.

“Doctors would say, ‘You have something very rare.’ Unfortunately, in Sarnia-Lambton, everything that they say is rare out there, we have it here.”

A monument in Centennial Park that Kinart’s group erected to honor workers and their families has been removed temporarily. The park, ironically, needed a $12-million remediation because sections of its soil were contaminated with, among other things, asbestos fibres.

“To me, it’s well too late,” Kinart said of the federal ban. “It’s too late in the fact that industry knew what this product would do. And what they’ve done is made these workers disposable. They have chosen to allow them to work in it, not being told it would shorten their life expectancy.”

Sarnia-Lambton MPP Bob Bailey recently introduced a private member’s bill in the Ontario legislature that would create a registry of all government buildings containing asbestos.

“It’s more than just maintenance or construction,” Bailey said. “I’m also thinking about first responders — firefighters, police, or EMS, who could be called to a fire or an explosion and will have to enter,” he said.

“It’s not a partisan issue, it’s a health issue.”

Even during the height of the Second World War the Nazi regime recognized asbestos-related cancers and compensated their workers accordingly, Dr. Teel said.

“It’s no secret; it’s the same old story, It’s a product that creates profits and creates jobs and that’s what always carries the day,” he said.

“This is the oldest story of humanity.”