Hundreds of former residents of a B.C. asbestos-mining town may have a time bomb ticking in their lungs – and because no one is tracking their health as a group, many of them might not be aware of the potential danger they face, CBC News has learned.
An estimated 50,000 people were employed over the lifetime of the Cassiar mine, which closed in 1992. They lived with their families in the now-abandoned town, about 220 kilometres south of the B.C.-Yukon border.
It takes about 20 years for asbestos-related cancers like mesothelioma to show up in the lungs, and workers say they were routinely exposed to the dangerous mineral without any protection.
"There was no face masks there," said former worker Rolly Gunville, who has been diagnosed with the lung disease asbestosis, which can be a precursor of mesothelioma.
"I asked for face masks. And what happened, this safety guy came up and he brought me this little container of salt pills," Gunville said.
He spent just three months working in the Cassiar mine.
"I wanted to get out of there. It was dangerous work. It was cold. It was hard to breathe."
Dozens of former Cassiar residents met for a reunion in Penticton, B.C., in August.
Many, like Gary Stratton, say they miss the old town.
"It was the greatest experience of my life living up there," Stratton said at the reunion.
Some recalled typical sights they now wonder about.
"There was green haze over the town all the time. The more that I think about it, I used to jog by the tailings pile every morning. That was my exercise," said Kelly Holzhaus.
Many former residents stay connected through a website run by a miner who spent his first 29 years in Cassiar.
"It's a virtual community website where there's tonnes of photos and, sadly, an 'In Memory' section that grows steadily," said Herb Daum.
But, like many from Cassiar, Daum says he has no symptoms and is not overly concerned..
"I had exposure, no denial of that. The impact, who knows?" said Daum.
Former resident Todd Whiteside also is not terribly concerned about the threat.
"It's been 20 years, since I've been exposed to asbestos," said Whiteside. "I refuse to let it rule my life. If something happens, something happens. I will deal with it then."
Many know they're at risk and get regular chest X-rays. But X-ray technology does not detect asbestos-related cancer early enough.
New research suggests that CT scans are much more effective at detecting lung cancer in people who were exposed to asbestos and also had other risk factors, like smoking or other lung damage.
"Getting an X-ray or CT scan will not really provide me any ways to deal with the problem. It would only be an indication of a problem. There's nothing I can do about it," Daum said.
At least one medical expert disagrees.
"It's not uncommon for people to think that way. There's an anxiety level. 'What if I found something that is not normal?' But if you discover disease early, the result of treatment is much better," said Dr. Stephen Lam, respirologist at the B.C. Cancer Agency.