In late 2016, Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan, along with three other ministers, announced that the Canadian government is moving to ban asbestos and asbestos-containing products by 2018. The ban will apply to the use, manufacture, import and export of any product containing asbestos, the goal being to eventually reduce the rate of asbestos-related diseases.
Asbestos in Canada
Canada began mining asbestos back in the 1870s, and soon became one of the world’s largest producers. After many years of success, Canada’s last asbestos mine closed in 2011. Although our mines are now closed, Canada continues to import millions of dollars’ worth of asbestos products every year. Brake pads and construction materials are just some of the products containing asbestos that are imported into Canada each year. In fact, last year alone a total of $8.3 million in asbestos-related products were imported into our country.
The ban on asbestos
With the announcement of a comprehensive ban on asbestos comes a whole-of-government approach, meaning the government will consult with the health, labour, trade and commerce sectors, as well as other stakeholders before implementing the ban. Throughout this two-year consultation period, the government will gather information on asbestos uses to gain a better understanding of how to control the substance and how best to regulate it under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. In this regard, the government has published a regulatory position paper, which is up for public comments until June 4, 2017.
In September of 2016, a list of asbestos-containing buildings that are owned and leased by Public Services and Procurement Canada was made public. In light of the ban on asbestos, the government has announced it plans to expand this list throughout the years. The government also plans to collaborate with provincial and territorial governments to update the national, provincial and territorial building codes to prohibit the use of asbestos in new construction and renovation projects across Canada.
Opposition to the proposed ban
The ban has received some opposition from two Quebec cabinet ministers, as they worry about what it will mean for jobs in Quebec. However, although the government seeks to impose an almost-complete ban on asbestos in 2018, under the proposed regulations, it would appear that the mining and processing of asbestos tailings, or residue (which can be carried out to extract minerals such as magnesium, nickel, chrome and cobalt) in Quebec will not be included in the ban. Clarifications will have to be provided to this effect. There are currently in Quebec several ongoing and proposed projects to treat or develop asbestos mining residues.
Under the proposed regulation, the government will also establish new federal workplace health and safety rules to limit the risk of people coming into contact with asbestos. This is particularly important because the Canadian Labour Congress has estimated that over 150,000 Canadians working in construction, waste management, auto maintenance and ship building are regularly exposed to asbestos. Of concern, the Globe and Mail recently reported that asbestos is the top cause of workplace deaths in Canada, and studies from the Canadian Cancer Society have found that asbestos exposure kills more than 2,000 people in Canada each year. In fact, inhaling even small amounts of airborne fibers can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis.
Statistics like these caused the World Health Organization to declare asbestos a human carcinogen back in 1987. For this reason, it may be surprising to learn a ban does not yet exist in Canada. But Canada will soon join the ranks of more than 50 countries that have already banned the substance, and the government plans to update Canada’s international position regarding the recognition of asbestos as a hazardous material. With the ban, the government of Canada expects to raise awareness of the health impacts of asbestos and hopes to reduce diseases that are attributed to asbestos exposure.
Over the next two years, Health Canada and Environment Canada will work closely together to create anti-asbestos regulations under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. They will face many challenges, including the challenge of finding a safe way to remove asbestos already in people’s homes and workplaces. Although the road will be long, it is a journey the government insists on taking to protect our future generations.
The authors would like to thank Kristina Bezprozvannykh, articling student, for her assistance in preparing this legal update.
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