Some 500 Ontario workers will be diagnosed with an asbestos-related cancer this year. Many more will suffer in silence, unaware that decade’s old exposures are robbing them of their health.
More Ontario workers now lose their lives to occupational cancers than to traumatic injuries. Seventy-one per cent of accepted occupational cancer fatality claims in Ontario from 1997 to 2010 were the direct result of exposure to asbestos.
Health impacts like these cry out for dramatic interventions. Creating awareness is the first step toward prevention. With this in mind, more than 80 workplace health and safety and compensation advocates, physicians, researchers, and affected workers and their families attended the second asbestos disease symposium organized by the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) and the Office of the Worker Advisor (OWA). The event aimed to raise awareness of the extent of asbestos disease, encourage screening, early detection and referral all in support of prevention.
Equally important, the event is helping to build a community of concern and action among its sponsors who included Canadian Auto Workers, Canadian Cancer Society, Canadian Environmental Law Association, Canadian Mesothelioma Foundation, Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, Ontario Federation of Labour, Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario and Sack Goldblatt Mitchell LLP.
Asbestos exposure and disease
Asbestos is a major contributor to the burden of occupational cancer in Ontario. Despite this, researchers say exposures are still poorly recognized and compensated.
According to Dr. Paul Demers, Director of the Occupational Cancer Research Centre, more than 150,000 Canadian workers are regularly exposed to asbestos on the job, during building maintenance, repair and demolition, and in auto repair shops. “Asbestos-containing materials are still in homes and buildings throughout the country. Many may be unaware they have been exposed,” says Demers. Given this, Demers believes many more lung cancers are likely attributable to asbestos exposure.
Identifying exposures is now easier thanks to Demers and others who created CAREX Canada, a surveillance program which provides substance profiles and detailed exposure estimates for many known environmental and occupational carcinogens.
Making links to workplace exposures is also a research priority for Dr. Linn Holness, Director, Centre for Research Expertise in Occupational Disease. Holness reported on efforts to develop tools for physicians to take thorough occupational histories of their patients. Says Holness, “Linking disease to workplace exposures not only helps secure compensation for workers but it also builds a stronger case for implementing prevention measures.”
Treatment and referral
Diagnosing and treating asbestos disease is difficult. Health symptoms often appear 20 to 40 years after exposure, long after workers may have left the job and forgotten about working conditions.
Mesothelioma, a cancer that mostly invades tissue lining the chest cavity, is almost exclusively related to asbestos exposure. Dr. Marc De Perrot is a thoracic surgeon and researcher at the University Health Network’s Mesothelioma Research Program.
This unique Program offers patients screening, rapid assessment and diagnosis all within one or two days. This is critically important says De Perrot, “The median survival of mesothelioma patients is six to 12 months. Patients often come to us in the last stages of disease. Our program helps speed up diagnosis and referral to specialists for treatment.”
Asbestos use in Canada peaked in the 1970’s and by the mid-1980’s its use was strictly regulated. A generation later, most of the asbestos mined in Canada is shipped to developing nations like India, the biggest buyer of Canadian asbestos.
Dr. Tushar Kant Joshi, Director, Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health, Maulana Azad Medical College in New Delhi, India, has made it his life’s mission to educate others, including Canadians, about asbestos disease in India and to lobby for a ban on its use. “Canada has a debt to India and other developing countries which bear the burden of disease caused by Canadian asbestos,” Joshi told symposium participants. With few resources, Joshi is nonetheless making inroads including efforts to train a new generation of occupational health physicians in India.
Close to home
Asbestos disease victims and their families have become vocal advocates both here and abroad. After the devastating loss of her husband to mesothelioma, Toronto pediatrician Dr. Eudice Goldberg wanted to help educate both physicians and families about the disease. Goldberg and her son Michael established the Canadian Mesothelioma Foundation. The Foundation provides support to patients and families, Canadian physicians and other health care professionals and those engaged in advocacy and policy work on asbestos and mesothelioma.
Eric Jonckheere knows loss too well. His father, mother and two brothers died of mesothelioma. Jonckerre’s father, Pierre, was an engineer at an Eternit Belgium asbestos manufacturing plant, close to where the family also lived. Before her death, Jonckheere’s mother, Francoise, launched a civil law suit against Eternit inspiring her son to launch ABEVA, a Belgian asbestos victims group.
Jonckheere says, “Asbestos is a problem in many countries. It’s important to build bridges and share experiences across borders.” While in Canada, he travelled to Quebec’s Jeffrey Mine and met with local residents to lend support for economic restructuring and just transition measures for the region.
Closer to home, southwestern Ontario’s Lambton County has the province’s highest rate of mesothelioma. Bill Coulbeck, died of the disease two months and four days after his diagnosis. His daughters, Leah Nielson and Stacy Cattran, mourn his loss but they also mobilize for change.
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