A search by the Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba has found more former employees of WR Grace who claim they are sick from working with asbestos-laden vermiculite.

WR Grace popped vermiculite to make Zonolite insulation at two Winnipeg plants between the 1940s and 1980s. The vermiculite came from a WR Grace mine in Montana that was naturally contaminated with an extremely carcinogenic form of asbestos.

Hundreds of former employees of WR Grace in the United States have become sick or died from asbestos-related illnesses after working in the Montana mine or at the company's processing plants across the country – but until recently, provincial officials knew of only one former WR Grace worker in Winnipeg who had died.

For the past year, Manitoba's Workers Compensation Board has worked to track down former employees at the two Winnipeg plants. The company gave the board a list of 124 names dating back to 1972, and the board contacted 19 of them.

"Out of that group, we have a number of statements of concern, and we've started a number of claims," said WCB spokesman Warren Preece.

Although Preece would not say exactly how many workers have asbestos-related illnesses due to confidentiality concerns, the WCB is concerned enough about the health of former WR Grace workers to enlist the help of its special investigations unit to find the rest of the company's former workers. It's the first time the unit has been used for such a purpose.

Doctors to watch for former employees

Preece says the WCB also plans to contact Manitoba physicians to help reach other workers who may have been exposed to contaminated vermiculite.

"We're going to be sending out a message to all the doctors in our database, letting them know that this is an issue, that [asbestos-related] cancers are something they should be on the lookout for and to be talking about," he said. "When they have patients come in, [they should] do a bit of a work-related background."

The WCB also plans to offer seminars to doctors to help them better identify asbestos-related diseases, Preece said.

The board has accepted claims on behalf of 43 Manitoba workers who died from asbestos-related diseases over the last five years.

Meanwhile, provincial workplace, safety and health officials have found no evidence of asbestos lingering at the two sites where the contaminated vermiculite was manufactured in Winnipeg. Asbestos contamination at some former WR Grace plants in the U.S. has led to major excavations and health warnings in some states.

An estimated 300,000 homes across Canada contain Zonolite vermiculite insulation. Health Canada officials say if the insulation is not disturbed, it should cause no health problems.