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Canada’s asbestos ban: Three questions answered

By 2018, Canada plans to be asbestos free, at least when it comes to new products. But what does that mean for the building industry?

By: Don Hartt, Environmental Scientist

It’s finally going to happen. The government of Canada announced it plans to join about 50 other countries in banning asbestos. For many people this may come as a surprise. Not because they don’t think the known carcinogen should be banned, but they assumed it had been long ago. As an occupational health professional, managing asbestos in the workplace has been a common occurrence throughout my career. Each year, several asbestos-related issues make the news and the reaction of individuals is similar; they say, “we thought asbestos was already banned.” Not so. Though its usage has declined since the mid-1970s, products are still imported today that contain concentrations of asbestos that designate them as “asbestos-containing materials”, which require specific handling, removal and disposal practices to protect workers and the public.

Unfortunately, asbestos is continually found throughout buildings and workplaces in Canada and the US. Typical culprits include vehicle brake pads and clutches, roofing materials, vinyl tile, cement piping, corrugated sheeting, home insulation and even some potting soils. We find it on a regular basis when providing environmental assessments on buildings.

Should I be concerned about asbestos exposure?
Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that exists naturally in the earth’s crust. It’s mined and used as an ingredient that adds valuable properties to building products and construction materials. For many years, Canada was one of the largest exporters of asbestos until the Jeffery mine in Quebec closed in 2011. The danger that asbestos fibers pose to human health is primarily through inhalation. When products containing asbestos are disturbed fibers may be released in air. Asbestos fibers are extremely resilient (one of those valuable properties), and depending on their size and shape, may reside in our lungs for long periods, which is where the damage is done. Health effects may be observed following a latency period of approximately 10-30 years which, makes it difficult to diagnose individuals following a recent exposure.

Regulations exist across North America that control potential exposure to asbestos in work environments, including allowable exposure limits and methods to contain asbestos. We do a good job at monitoring for and applying those regulations to mitigate inhalation exposures both to workers and the community.  

Regardless of the current use of asbestos, for the average person the danger of exposure is very low. It’s when the fibers are disturbed and become airborne—like during building demolition—that they become dangerous. That’s where having a thorough environmental assessment completed before tackling any kind of demolition or renovation. Especially in older buildings.

How did we get here?
Here is a little context as to how we’ve finally come to the milestone of banning asbestos. In 1988, Canada ratified the International Labour Organization convention concerning safety in the use of asbestos, known as the Asbestos Convention. At that point, the production and use of asbestos in construction materials declined significantly. If a building was constructed in the mid-1990’s, chances are that it will not contain asbestos in friable (breakable by hand pressure alone) building products, such as thermal insulations, wall/ceiling plasters and drywall joint compound. That said, my Stantec colleagues all over Canada and the US still find asbestos in post-1990 construction materials during our assessments within such things as roofing materials, cement products, mastics, adhesives, glazing’s, etc. materials that are not easily crushed and made friable. The only method of determining if a building material contains asbestos is to have it sampled and tested by an accredited laboratory.

The definition of Asbestos-Containing Materials (ACM) is associated with provincial jurisdictions. For example, where I reside in Nova Scotia, Canada, an ACM is defined as any material containing greater than or equal to 0.5% asbestos. This hasn’t always been the case. In 2013, the Nova Scotia government reduced this determination from 1% asbestos content. So basically, prior to 2013 a building material, such as wall/ceiling plater, brick mortar or vinyl floor tile that contained <1% of asbestos was not considered an ACM. Over the last 30 years the trend of determining what an ACM is has declined in most jurisdictions, but still differ from province to province, and from country to country.

Will the Canadian asbestos ban affect me?
The federal government says it is moving to phase out the manufacture, use, import and export of asbestos in products, which includes building materials for new construction and renovation. The building industry will need to adapt to new products and evaluate their durability when stacked up against their asbestos-containing counterparts, so there will likely be a learning curve ahead. Its yet to be conveyed how the comprehensive ban will impact existing buildings that contain asbestos. Since it’s the provinces jurisdictions to regulate the safe handling, removal and disposal of ACMs, the impact will likely not change how we assess for and manage asbestos in buildings in the immediate future. Ban or no ban, a comprehensive environmental assessment will remain the best course of action to keep you and your community safe.

The proposed ban on asbestos has brought renewed attention to this issue, and awareness is paramount in educating people about the presence of ACMs in common building materials and the health effects it poses if handled improperly. When it comes to something as risky as asbestos, it’s always best to ask questions and get the best information possible. My colleagues and I in the Occupational Hygiene and Indoor Environment and practices are available anytime to answer any questions about your project. 

Related item: Environmental Services

Ban or no ban, a comprehensive environmental assessment will remain the best course of action to keep you and your community safe.

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