When discussing environmental justice, several common themes center around health effects associated with exposure to lead or outdoor air quality and respiratory conditions. While these topics are vital to conversations about public health, there are other toxins the general public may not realize are a continued concern. Asbestos is a prime example of a toxin with a lengthy and complex history in Canada that continues to be a threat today.

Canada was once a major producer and distributor of asbestos throughout the world. Although Canada began regulating asbestos use within its borders in the 1970s, the country continued exporting millions of tons of the mineral to other parts of the world, most often developing countries in need of cheap building materials. A 2014 study found that modern asbestos use is highly concentrated in India and China, but also continues in smaller countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Canada has also actively advocated for the continued use of asbestos on the world stage. In the 1990s, Canada filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization after France proposed a ban on chrysotile asbestos, suggesting this violated WTO non-discrimination rules against imported goods. Canada was overruled, but continued exporting asbestos and benefiting financially from its continued use. It wasn’t until 2012 that the Canadian government conceded to adding asbestos onto a list of hazardous materials as part of the Rotterdam Convention.

The last asbestos mine in Canada was closed in 2011, and in late 2016 the country announced its intention to ban the mineral’s use by 2018. These changes are welcome, but unfortunately will not be able to stem the rising number of asbestos-related deaths expected in the years to come. This can be attributed to the slow development of symptoms following asbestos exposure as well as the high rate of fatalities associated with asbestos-caused illnesses like mesothelioma. Once this form of cancer has been diagnosed, patients are only expected to live for 1-2 years. Asbestos exposure can also lead to the development of other conditions with their own troubling outcomes.

Asbestos is still widely used today, despite the known consequences to public health. One study estimated that 2 million tons of asbestos are used globally each year, though this amount is substantially lower than two decades ago. Even in countries that don’t actively install asbestos products, there is still a substantial risk of exposure. Asbestos-containing materials installed decades ago are likely to still be present, and potentially be in a friable and dangerous condition. The federal government maintains a registry of its buildings known to contain asbestos, but no comprehensive list exists for privately owned buildings. Aging buildings in low-income areas are a primary concern as economically disadvantaged populations don’t have the money to address the high costs of proper asbestos abatement and removal. For example, at Little Singer Community School in the Navajo Nation as well as other schools in tribal areas within the United States, Native American children attend classes in facilities that contain asbestos and other toxins.

Luckily there is a growing awareness about the continued use and presence of asbestos in the public sphere. More and more nations are choosing to address asbestos through legal action. Several of the most recent countries to ban asbestos were formally major producers and exporters of the mineral. Canada is one example, and even more recently Brazil has joined the ranks of countries that will no longer produce asbestos. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency is conducting an evaluation of several toxins including asbestos, which could lead to a ban in the years to come. Much of this is due to awareness efforts from environmental groups and health advocates. Without public engagement in asbestos, legislative changes at the national level wouldn’t be possible.

Environmental justice has become a major component of the modern environmental movement. It forces nations to confront their own history as well as the continued implications of past decisions, both within their borders and globally. It can be easy to brush aside the complicated saga of Canada’s asbestos use, but understanding this issue gives us insight into modern policies and an outlook for the future.

Anna Suarez is an advocate for environmental and public health whose work is focused on building a larger dialogue about asbestos use and the preventable illnesses associated with it. She hopes that this will one day lead to the end of asbestos use around the world.

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