Canadian Environmental Health Atlas

Understanding Our Environment is Key to Promoting Health and Preventing Disease

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Asbestos Production in Canada

Asbestos Production in Canada

Asbestos Production in Canada
To keep up with industrial demand, asbestos production in Canada increased dramatically in the 1950s and continued increasing throughout the 1960s and early 1970s (Figure 1). But even when production and use declined sharply in the late 1970s after damaging publicity about the long-term effects of asbestos, Canada continued to produce and export the mineral.

Until recently, Canada was one of the world’s largest exporters of asbestos, with the vast majority of Canadian asbestos going to developing countries such as Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and Thailand, where workers often lack the capacity and knowledge to use the mineral safely (Figure 2). 

In 2011, the last two remaining asbestos mines in Canada, both located in the province of Quebec, halted production. With the commitment of a $58 million dollar loan from the Quebec government in 2012, one of the mines was set to reopen. However, following a provincial election that resulted in a change of leadership, the new Premier of Quebec promised to cancel the loan and instead use the funds for economic diversification in the asbestos mining communities of Quebec.1 At this time, the federal government Industry Minister announced that they would no longer oppose international efforts to list asbestos as a hazardous substance under the Rotterdam Convention, which aims to protect those living in developing countries from hazardous substances.2 The Canadian government also committed financial support for economic development in the asbestos mining regions.1

While the Canadian government has backed down on its support of the asbestos industry, asbestos mining and export is not banned in Canada. A number of researchers, public health officials, and health organizations have called upon governments to ban the production, export, and use of asbestos.345 

Asbestos-related Deaths
Asbestos is one of the leading causes of occupationally-related cancer deaths (Figure 3). Because it can take many years for the inhaled or ingested asbestos fibres to cause symptoms, most asbestos-related diseases are first detected long after exposure to the mineral. This long latency period makes studying diseases caused by asbestos difficult for occupational health researchers.

One disease receiving an increasing amount of attention is malignant mesothelioma. Mesothelioma deaths in Canada rose steadily after the 1960s, when workers previously exposed to asbestos began to suffer symptoms and doctors began to recognize the disease. We know now that the average latency period of mesothelioma is about 30 years after initial exposure, but it often ranges from 15 to 40 years.6 This means that in developing countries using Canadian asbestos today, an increase in mesothelioma deaths can be expected in future.

  • 1. a. b. Ruff K. Quebec and Canadian governments end their historic support of the asbestos industry. Editorial. Int J Occup Environ Health. 2012; 18(4):263-267.
  • 2. Canadian Public Health Association. CPHA applauds the Government of Canada on chrysotile asbestos decision. 14 September 2012.
  • 3. LaDou J, Landrigan P, III J, Foa V, Frank A. A call for an international ban on asbestos. Can Med Assoc J. 2001; 164(4):489-490.
  • 4. Attaran A, Boyd DR, Stanbrook MB. Asbestos mortality: A Canadian export. Can Med Assoc J. 2008; 179(9):871-872.
  • 5. World Health Organization. Elimination of asbestos-related diseases. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization; 2006.
  • 6. Lanphear BP, Buncher CR. Latent period for malignant mesothelioma of occupational origin. J Occup Med. 1992;34(7):718-21.