The University of Manitoba's anthropology department has lost two members of its academic staff to a rare and fatal form of cancer - mesothelioma. One thing known about mesothelioma is its cause - exposure to asbestos.
Since many of our post-secondary institutions are riddled with asbestos, the deaths at Manitoba should alert all academics to the very real danger we face. Although the use of asbestos was banned in Canada in the 1970s it continues to be a danger because construction and renovation up until that time involved the use of a variety of products that contained asbestos, including floor coverings, ceiling tiles, paints, insulation, pipe coverings and wall board. In most cases that asbestos is still in our workplaces and poses a serious health risk as it is loosened by renovation, by normal wear-and-tear, by deterioration and by accidental disturbance.
Many of us have been working with asbestos around us for years. In most cases - as I suspect was true for our deceased colleagues at Manitoba - we have been unaware of the danger. But the inhalation hazards associated with asbestos are too real to ignore any longer.
Some of our colleagues have been made aware of asbestos only after their institutions acknowledged its use and started removing asbestos material from buildings. Normally it should be easy to tell when asbestos is being removed. There should be thorough measures in place indicating a hazard. The area should be cordoned off, with portions sealed, and signs should be posted clearly stating the nature of the work. Removing asbestos is serious business because fibres are released into the air. We breathe in these fibres and we carry them home on our clothes.
Unfortunately, asbestos is not always properly removed. And it is likely that asbestos material is disturbed during renovations or repairs because our institutions have not adequately mapped where asbestos exists. So maintenance and academic staff alike may be unaware of the exposure risk they face.
The dangers of asbestos have been known since the time of Pliny the Elder. The worry about mesothelioma has become more acute recently as we have learned it can be caused by relatively low and short-term levels of exposure to asbestos - unlike other asbestos-generated diseases such as asbestosis. In 2003, researchers at the National Institute of Public Health in Quebec discovered that women in the Chaudière-Appalaches area (home of Canada's chrysotile asbestos, or "white" asbestos mines) have the highest rate of mesothelioma in the world. Most of these women have never worked in the chrysotile mines, but other family members were carrying home asbestos dust and fibres on clothing and skin.
We can only protect ourselves if we know our workplace from the inside-out. Asbestos is now a regulated substance in almost all jurisdictions in Canada, so our administrations are obligated to know where it exists, to test for its presence in air and to take steps to eliminate the hazard. But too often they fail to fulfill this obligation properly. We need to find out what is inside of the walls and ceilings of our campus offices, labs, sporting facilities, classrooms and daycare centres. Faculty associations need to ask their representatives on joint health and safety committees to get copies of the institution's asbestos surveys. It is also prudent to consult with other unions on campus. Get to know the maintenance staff. These are the people who have seen the "insides" of our institutions. They have crawled into ceilings and basements, sometimes at risk to their own health. Buildings and grounds crews often know where asbestos is still prominent.
Recently a colleague told me he had worked in a space where asbestos materials were being removed, but he had received no information on hazards from his administration. Worse still, it appeared the materials were being removed by unskilled and improperly trained workers.
It is important to know our legal rights in such cases. Under labour law, we are protected. If there is physical danger in a workplace, if there is risk to human health, we have the right to refuse to work.
Our federal government shares some of the blame for the problem. Canada exports and markets chrysotile worldwide. Chrysotile asbestos accounts for about 99 per cent of the asbestos mined worldwide and Canada is the world's second leading producer. Already asbestos has been banned in most industrialized countries. A number of countries, including Greece, Portugal and Hungary are working hard to have it banned. Japan is currently attempting to put major restrictions on its sale and use. The International Labour Organization reports that 100,000 people die every year from past asbestos exposure.
On Sept. 18, 2004, Canada, along with several other producing and consuming countries, opted against the inclusion of chrysotile on the list covered by the Rotterdam Convention on trade in hazardous chemicals. When the United Nations first attempted to list chrysotile in November 2003 it was blocked by asbestos stakeholders led by Canada.
We need to act now to protect ourselves, our colleagues and our students in our universities and colleges, and we need to pressure our government to end its promotion of asbestos.
CAUT will be launching a national asbestos removal campaign in the next few weeks.