Zonolite used in hundreds of First Nations homes

An audit by the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs has found at least 600 homes on First Nations across the country contain Zonolite insulation – but the department has no plans to test for asbestos or remove the insulation from the homes.

An audit by the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs has found at least 600 homes on First Nations across the country contain Zonolite insulation – but the department has no plans to test for asbestos or remove the insulation from the homes.

Hundreds of thousands of Canadian homes contain a type of vermiculite insulation, mostly sold under the name Zonolite, which could contain asbestos. Health Canada says if the insulation is disturbed, exposure to the asbestos can cause scarring of the lungs and some forms of cancer.

In Manitoba, the audit showed Zonolite was used in 234 homes on First Nations.

Hugh Ryan, manager of housing for Indian and Northern Affairs, says his department searched old records to come up with the numbers. Ryan's not sure how accurate they are, but the information has been passed on to local band officials, and that's where his department's involvement ends.

"We wanted the communities to be in the best position possible, so that they themselves could make informed decisions as to how to best handle the situation," he says.

While the Department of National Defence has set aside a special fund to deal with Zonolite in military houses, Ryan says First Nations communities will have to pay for any testing or removal of the insulation with their annual housing budgets.

Keith Bunn, a councillor at Bird Tail Sioux First Nation west of Brandon, is shocked to hear the band has to pay for further testing or removal. Federal records show at least two houses on his reserve have Zonolite, and Bunn has already asked to have five others tested.

"We cannot afford any type of testing to that extent, because it will be pretty costly," he says.

Raven Thundersky, whose family has been decimated by exposure to Zonolite in her family's home on the Poplar River First Nation, is disappointed to hear First Nations people won't get the same consideration as Canada's soldiers.

"What they're saying is that they're taking this seriously and they're suggesting what should be done. But the bottom line is there's no money to do anything and there's no help whatsoever for the people. They have left us to die and to deal with this on our own," she says.

"We're the lowest of the low. We've been treated as low-class citizens, and at times as not even humans. And this proves it again."

Thundersky and Bunn want Indian Affairs to notify people who may have been exposed to Zonolite and pay for any medical tests.

Ryan says people in First Nations communities who are concerned about exposure to Zonolite should call Health Canada for more advice.

So far, Health Canada has not explained the discrepancy in the way different federal departments are handling the issue.