In the 1940s, the first of the modern synthetic insecticides, DDT (technical name dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) was developed. It proved effective in combatting insect-borne diseases such as malaria and typhus and for insect control in crops, institutions, homes and gardens.
But in the 1960s, DDT’s cancer-causing properties were discovered, and in 1972, Canada and the U.S. banned the chemical.
Meanwhile, a material whose known health risks date back to the early part of the 20th century has continued to be commonly used across the country.
Now, finally, the federal government is making a move to ban products that contain asbestos.
The Liberal government announced earlier this month it intends to prohibit the manufacture, export and import of asbestos and asbestos-containing products by 2018.
In taking action against a material that continues to claim new victims each year, Canada is arriving late to the party.
Under the Rotterdam Convention, 156 countries have already listed asbestos as a hazardous material. The Liberal government has given indications it will sign on to the treaty at the 2017 spring meeting.
Concerns about the health hazard posed by asbestos picked up steam in the 1970s, but the alarm bells began sounding long before then. It was in the early 1900s that researchers in Britain and Europe began to notice the prevalence of lung problems and early deaths in asbestos-mining communities. That eventually led to a report in 1930 called “Occurrence of Pulmonary Fibrosis & Other Pulmonary Afflictions in Asbestos Workers,” which was presented to the British Parliament.
The effects of asbestos didn’t go unnoticed in Canada. In the 1920s, the Department of Industrial Hygiene was established at McGill University to study a “dust disease” of the lungs that was making asbestos workers ill.
The 1970s saw growing worry about the health effects of asbestos. In Australia, asbestos mining was halted in 1983 and its use was phased out a few years later. A complete ban took effect in 2003.
Canada, however, was slower to take action, likely because of concern about decimating the asbestos industry which was so important to Quebec. Large deposits of asbestos in that province made Quebec one of the largest asbestos-producing regions in the world, and the industry was a key pillar in the province’s economy.
But at the root of the industry was the fact that asbestos was making people ill and killing them.
In 2009, results of a report commissioned by Health Canada found a “strong relationship” between lung cancer and chrysotile asbestos. But in spite of increasing pressure on the government from groups including the Canadian Cancer Society, Canada resisted adding chrysotile into the list of hazardous substances. As recently as June 2012, the Quebec government contributed $58 million to the Jeffrey Mine, one of the last remaining asbestos mines.
Finally, sound judgment has won out and Canada is taking a step that should have been taken a long time ago. It comes too late for many victims of asbestos-related illnesses, but better late than never. As a recent editorial in the Toronto Star noted, there’s still much work to be done to remove asbestos from Canadian buildings, but it’s a start.