Asbestos Management in Canada: Assessing the Need for a National Standard

Citation

  • Keefe, A., Demers, P., Pahwa, M., Parelkar, S. (2021). Asbestos Management in Canada: Assessing the Need for a National Standard. Canadian Standards Association, Toronto, ON.

Executive Summary

Asbestos has been widely used in a range of industries for over a century. Canada was once the world’s largest producer of asbestos and remained a major exporter of chrysotile asbestos until 2012. Although much of the asbestos was exported, Canada was also a major consumer of asbestos. Exposure to asbestos fibres can cause inflammation, scarring, and genetic damage on a cellular level. It is a potent carcinogen that causes mesothelioma, as well as cancer of the lung, larynx, and ovaries. In addition, it causes asbestosis, a chronic, fibrotic lung disease that decreases the lungs’ elasticity and makes it more difficult to breathe. Because asbestos-related diseases have a long latency, the diseases being diagnosed today are the result of historical exposure that occurred many years ago. Over the last 30 years, strict regulations governing the use of asbestos have been implemented and complete asbestos bans have been introduced. As a result, the most common source of exposure today is the release of fibres from asbestos-containing products and building materials (ACM).

The aim of this research project was to explore potential gaps and best practices in asbestos management in Canada and to determine if there is a need for the development of a national standard. An environmental scan was conducted of regulations for managing and controlling workplace exposure to asbestos in Canada and in selected international jurisdictions. The scan’s findings were supplemented by a literature review and a series of 31 key informant interviews designed to elicit information on if and where a new standard could benefit stakeholders across a range of asbestos management roles. Effective management of asbestos is contingent on accurately identifying its location and condition, assessing the risk of exposure to workers and the public, and selecting an appropriate strategy to eliminate or control the risk. Despite the presence of a relatively robust regulatory framework, the following key gaps and inconsistencies in how asbestos management is currently regulated in Canada were identified via the environmental scan and key informant interviews:

  • Jurisdictional responsibility: Legislative responsibility and oversight of asbestos management is divided between federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal authorities. This creates compliance challenges for employers and consultants working in different jurisdictions and enforcement challenges for regulators.
  • Asbestos definitions: Across the country, there are conflicting definitions of what constitutes asbestos and ACM. This not only complicates the identification and documentation of asbestos, but also creates challenges in the assessment of risk, the selection of appropriate control measures to mitigate risk, and the management and safe disposal of asbestos waste.
  • Training: There are significant differences across the country in the approaches taken to (a) train asbestos-exposed workers and supervisors and (b) determine competency of people engaged in certain critical activities along the asbestos management spectrum.
  • Awareness: There is a general lack of public awareness about the presence of asbestos in the built environment. Because this asbestos is inadequately documented, the people who live and work in these buildings have a high risk of exposure.

There is an appetite for a national asbestos management standard in Canada. Such a standard could add value by (a) being a driving force for cross-Canada harmonization of asbestos regulations and best practices, which would level the playing field for those working in multiple jurisdictions; (b) establishing minimum competency levels, and supporting enforcement efforts; and (c) ensuring equitable protection of all Canadians.