Asbestos-related cancers a growing concern

During her early career years as a chemistry teacher, Patricia Martens used asbestos heating pads with Bunsen burners. The University of Manitoba professor also felt felt she was exposed to asbestos during the 30 years she studied and worked at the university. In Feburary 2013 was diagnosed with mesothelioma.

Two other University of Manitoba professors were also diagnosed with the same cancer and have since died.

Martens’ story is becoming all too common among long-time university and college employees, according to Laura Lozanski, occupational health and safety officer at the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT).

Diagnosis of asbestos-related disease is on the rise as many buildings were built decades ago without full awareness of the dangers of asbestos-containing construction materials (ACM). With a latency period of 50 years, mesothelioma is now a leading cause of work-related fatalities in Canada, according to the Occupational Cancer Research Centre in Toronto.

“Asbestos was used in so many different applications and so many different types of configurations and properties that it isn’t uncommon for places like universities or large institutions to have asbestos materials,” said Al Johnson, vice-president of prevention services at WorkSafeBC in Vancouver. “It’s been a requirement for a number of years that those materials be managed safely and/or removed safely — but that’s not to say someone who’s been in that location for longer term might have been exposed.”

While the dangers of asbestos are now well-known, provincial governments are working to better record the location and potential exposure to ACM. In addition to its asbestos information website, WorkSafeBC has a registry that tracks exposure.

“It’s a database that allows anyone in the province that believes they’ve been exposed to any type of hazardous substance or chemical, that they can then enter that information onto the registry and then it provides a permanent record of that type of exposure,” said Johnson.

While the entries are subjective, they do allow for the exposure information to be logged with key information, he said. Previously, a worker might call to say he’d been exposed to asbestos, not sure what to do, and often he would go to his family doctor to have the information entered into his medical file — only to be forgotten 20 or 30 years later.

“This exposure registry now allows for that type of placement of information for future use,” said Johnson.

The registry looks at any type of exposure, so it could be anything from silica or a chemical substance to a mercury spill, he said.

Most of the “gross exposures” to asbestos have been eliminated as asbestos was highly used in the shipbuilding industry, pulp mills and oil refineries — a lot of industrial applications in years gone by, said Johnson.

Exposures today are coming predominantly from commercial buildings and homes that are being renovated or demolished, said Johnson. And British Columbia requires every building owner to do a hazardous material survey of its property.

While injury rates, serious injury rates and work-related deaths are all decreasing in the province, the occupational disease death rate is going in the opposite direction, said Johnson.

“Deaths related to occupational disease, predominantly disease from exposure to asbestos, is increasing,” he said. “They are typically more senior in their age and they were a pipefitter, a carpenter, a painter, an insulator, who all were exposed to asbestos 30, 40 years ago, so we’re still fighting that increase in disease we expect to continue just because of the latency period of disease.”

Raising awareness

Saskatchewan now requires mandatory asbestos reporting for Crown corporations, school districts, health regions and facilities and provincial government buildings. The registry is meant to ensure employers are meeting the regulatory requirements of occupational health and safety regulations in terms of identifying ACM within their workplaces, recording the condition and location of the materials and ensuring it is safe and no one operating there is under a risk of exposure, said Mike Carr, deputy minister of labour relations and workplace safety in Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety in Regina.

The registry has been beneficial in encouraging employers to remember they have a responsibility in ensure a safety and healthy workplace, he said, and tracking the information now will help with claims down the road.

While it’s still early days to know how much of an impact the registry is having, the government continues to improve the registry.

“We are moving… to standardized reporting, so we’ve made a template available on the website for all employers and we’ve asked that they reconsider what they may have previously submitted in order to ensure they’re meeting the new standard that we expect them to comply with,” said Carr, adding the registry is also becoming more user-friendly in terms of searchability.