In the point-of-view documentary Town of Widows, we meet former General Electric workers and widows who are fighting for compensation in a system that they feel is stacked against them. The workers recount the “snowstorm” of asbestos in the Peterborough, Ont., plant, and one keeps a list of co-workers who have died from cancer.

In response to a GE-commissioned study that said there were no “significant excesses” of cancer at the facility, the workers and widows create a map of the plant to track where they worked with some of its 3,000 different chemicals, and 40 known or suspected carcinogens, from 1945 and 2000. The map laid the groundwork for a report that was presented to the province’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) as new evidence to support the workers’ claims.

Read on for more about the workers’ report, asbestos, cancer, and the broader issues at play in Ontario and across Canada.

Occupational cancer in Canada

According to research from the Occupational Cancer Research Centre (OCRC) in Toronto, occupational cancer is the leading cause of work-related deaths in Canada. And between 1997 and 2010, about 70 per cent of accepted occupational cancer death claims in Canada involved asbestos exposure.

Vancouver-based research initiative CAREX Canada and the OCRC estimate that about 1,900 cases of lung cancer and 430 cases of mesothelioma are caused by occupational exposure to asbestos each year. In 2011 alone, they report, this cost the economy approximately $2.35 billion in health-related costs and productivity losses.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring, fibrous mineral, once known as the “magic” or “miracle mineral” due to its versatility, strength and fire-resistant nature. Historically, asbestos has been widely used in a variety of building materials and household products, including insulation, pipes, brake pads, clothing, play dough, crayons, toothpaste and artificial snow.

What does asbestos do to the body?

Asbestos can cause a lung disease called asbestosis, as well as mesothelioma and other cancers (e.g. lung and laryngeal cancer). According to the Canadian Cancer Society, mesothelioma can have a particularly long latency period (the length of time between exposure and diagnosis), ranging from 15 to 40 years. In terms of relative survival, individuals diagnosed with mesothelioma are seven per cent as likely to live at least five years after their diagnosis as their peers in the general population.

Asbestos use in Canada

Canada was a leading producer of asbestos before the country’s last two asbestos mines, located in Quebec, closed in 2011. For years, the Canadian government maintained there was a safer form of asbestos, chrysotile asbestos, despite the World Health Organization (WHO)’s position that all forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans. Regulations were introduced in 2018 to ban the substance in Canada, with some exemptions to allow military, nuclear and other facilities to continue to use it for several years.

Asbestos at GE in Peterborough

Between 1891 and 2018, GE Peterborough housed many industries, such as manufacturing motors, generators and appliances, and producing fuel bundles for nuclear reactors. In their report, workers said they were exposed to a range of known and suspected carcinogens that the plant used in its production processes, including asbestos, silica, arsenic, benzene, beryllium, uranium, cadmium and lead.

Workers also described the practice of “plucking the goose,” which involved removing waste asbestos from holding bins by hand and without protection. According to a book by Dr. Barry Castleman, cited in the report, GE in the U.S. was made aware of the harmful effects of asbestos, lead and other chemicals as far back as the 1920s and ’30s.

The GE plant in Peterborough used over 225 kilograms of asbestos per day in 1971, according to a government report cited by the workers and reviewed in an investigation by the Toronto Star. The government inspector also said there was “a considerable amount of asbestos fibres … on the floor.” In the same year, the Star notes, asbestos levels in the plant were recorded at double the legal limit for the time (100 times the permitted amount in 2016).

Workers compensation and the WSIB

Ontario’s WSIB is an independent government agency funded by employer premiums. It is meant to financially compensate workers across the province for work-related physical and mental injuries or illnesses, or, in the case of a worker’s death, their spouse, children or other dependents. Workers’ compensation systems in Canada, like the WSIB, are what’s known as no-fault systems, wherein workers cannot sue their employer if they are covered.

According to data the WSIB provided to Town of Widows director Natasha Luckhardt,  from 1975 to the present day, around two-thirds of 685 occupational disease claims from the Peterborough GE plant were initially denied, were still pending or had been withdrawn or abandoned. During a 2017–2018 review of nearly 250 claims, 71 additional occupational disease claims were compensated, resulting in a total of 293 accepted claims out of 685.

As of 2002, GE in the United States had been confronted with more than 400,000 asbestos-related claims and more than 500,000 by 2006.

Watch Town of Widows on CBC Docs POV.