Cancer was the most common occupational disease in 2005, numbering 383 deaths in Canada. Of the 383 deaths attributed to cancer, 89% were determined to be the result of asbestos exposure, totalling 340 asbestos-related deaths in 2005. This represented a substantial increase from less than 60 asbestos-related deaths in 1996.

Asbestos is a general term applied to certain fibrous materials popular for their resistance, tensile strength and acoustic insulation properties. Prior to the 1980s, these materials were widely used in many industries. Canada continues to mine and export asbestos while many other OECD countries, such as Sweden, Germany, Italy, France, and Saudi Arabia, have implemented bans.

It is suspected that most current deaths as a result of asbestos exposure trace back to exposure prior to the implementation and enforcement of stricter control measures. Due to the long latency periods (20- 50 years) of asbestos-related diseases, it is likely that the number of work-related deaths has not yet peaked.

In support of this position, a recent report now suggests that Canada is in the midst of an epidemic of work-related asbestos cases that will manifest over the coming decades. The report, entitled Canada's Asbestos Legacy at Home and Abroad, published in the May 2007 issue of the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health ("IJOEH"), provides some of the first estimates of the human and financial toll in Canada caused by exposure to asbestos. This article will highlight the issues outlined in the report.

Workers Not Compensated

Each province in Canada has an employerfunded system in place to compensate workers for work-related injuries and diseases. However, according to the IJOEH report, many workers with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases remain uncompensated (mesothelioma is a rare and typically fatal cancer, whose only known cause is previous exposure to asbestos).

In Ontario, mesothelioma is recognized as a "Schedule 4" disease (WSIB Operational Policy 16-02-12). This legal designation provides for an irrefutable presumption that mesothelioma is workrelated and is, therefore, automatically compensable. However, it is possible to deny a claim for mesothelioma in Ontario on the following grounds: where a worker has less than two years of proven exposure to asbestos; or one's particular employment is not included in the Schedules.

According to the IJOEH report, between 1993 and 2006, more than 100 cases of mesothelioma in Ontario were denied compensation. In addition, a report released by Cancer Care Ontario and the WSIB revealed that 1,487 male cases of mesothelioma occurred between 1980 and 2002 in Ontario - but only 550 claims were filed for the illness with the WSIB. In a statement to the Globe and Mail newspaper on July 14, 2007, the WSIB asserted: "most people with the disease don't apply for compensation and, out of those who do, about 90 per cent are compensated."

Asbestos Regulations

Although asbestos use in Canada has decreased by over 75% between 1998 and 2003, Canada remains one of the world's largest miners and exporters. Today, each province has specific standards and policies for regulating asbestos exposure. For example, in the province of Ontario, the asbestos exposure standard is 0.1 fibers/cc, which is a level determined by Health Canada to be of very low risk for affecting human health aversely.

Nevertheless, while Canada is in line with the strictest occupational exposure limits in the world for asbestos, such an exposure is still associated with lifetime risks for lung cancer (5 per 1000) and asbestosis (2 per 1000). The IJOEH report's co-authors assert that even the best workplace controls are not a realistic alternative to a ban on the use and exportation of asbestos.

Call for a Transition Strategy to Ban Asbestos Exportation

Resistance to mining and exporting asbestos among Canadians appears to be growing. A national network of trade unions, environmentalists, medical and scientific associations endorse the eventual phasing-out of both use and export of asbestos and would like to see the Canadian government develop a transition strategy to meet this goal. While there is considerable public pressure, it is presently unclear whether Canada will ever institute a ban on use and exportation of asbestos.

In the meantime, Canadian employers have a legal duty to comply with their provincial legislative requirements pertaining to asbestos. In Ontario, for example, amendments to the regulation respecting asbestos on construction projects and in building and repair operations (O. Reg. 278/05) take effect November 1, 2007. These amendments include new requirements for asbestos workers and supervisors involved in "Type 3" operations to successfully complete a training program approved by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, as well as changes to various provisions of the asbestos management program.