Asbestos registry needed, says cancer patient

A Saskatchewan man with a rare form of cancer linked to asbestos is demanding the federal government establish a national registry of buildings that contain the hazardous fibre.

Food plant inspector exposed to asbestos while working in older buildings

Asbestos Registry

10 years ago
Duration 4:10
There could be many public buildings across Canada with asbestos insulation. That means millions of Canadians are in government owned buildings that are filled with it.

A Saskatchewan man with a rare form of cancer linked to asbestos is demanding the federal government establish a national registry of buildings that contain the hazardous fibre.

Howard Willems, 59, who lives in Saskatoon, contracted mesothelioma while inspecting a number of older food plants in Saskatchewan. 

Willems began lobbying for a registry in his home province, which he hopes will eventually spread across the country, shortly after being diagnosed. 

He argues that "everyone has a right to know when they go into a workplace or when they’re going into a building, it is safe."

Only a short time ago, Willems was fit enough to hike the Grand Canyon with his wife. Today, he needs a cane to walk. Though he remains upbeat, Willems had one lung removed in 2011 and his other lung is continually monitored. 

Research shows that 98 per cent of people with mesothelioma die within three years. 

Willems, 59, undergoes a CT scan as part of the continued monitoring of his remaining lung. (CBC)

Willems has been a federal food plant inspector for more than 30 years. He says he now realizes he was exposed to asbestos when he inspected plants while they were being renovated, especially during the removal of pipes with asbestos insulation.

"When the light hit the right way you could see the fibres in the air."

He says no one seemed to be concerned at the time about the dangers of breathing in the fibres, and that a registry would help workers to be better informed.

"Something as simple as knowing and putting on a mask going into those scenarios could have prevented all of that," he says, referring to his lung cancer.

Quebec asbestos registry kept from public

Willems is not the only one to have lobbied for an asbestos registry. In the last two years, the Canadian Cancer Society has asked both the prime minister and the finance minister to create a registry. 

In Quebec, environmental activist Daniel Green has been a vocal proponent of a registry. He says Quebec has a list of 1,550 buildings containing asbestos, but won’t allow the public to see it.

"When we asked the government to give us the list [of addresses] they refused.… the government is telling us, 'We will not tell you of the asbestos in buildings you own as taxpayers,'" says Green. 

Daniel Green, an environmental activist in Montreal, is trying to create a registry of buildings in Quebec that contain asbestos. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Green, who is trying to compile his own inventory list, says through his own research he has identified 300 schools, hospitals, and public offices in the province that contain asbestos.

Although the asbestos in many of the buildings may be contained and could be considered safe, Green points out that "in a lot of these places, asbestos fibres are escaping because of wear and tear and degradation and because of work like masonry replastering and replacing walls."

Many buildings constructed before 1980 contain asbestos, which was used starting in the 1930s to insulate plumbing and in rubber tiles.

The federal government keeps track of asbestos in some of the buildings it owns and is removing asbestos from the Parliament Buildings In Ottawa; so far, over 1,000 tonnes have been trucked away.

Some asbestos was also removed from the top of a hot water tank at 24 Sussex Drive, the prime minister's residence, in 2008.


Should Canada create an asbestos registry? Take our poll.

Public Works provided CBC with a list of the buildings it owns across Canada that contain asbestos.  The list was compiled Jan. 20. 

Although politicians and civil servants have a registry of their buildings, Green and Willems argue that all Canadians should know whether the buildings they work in contain asbestos.

At least two other countries, France and Australia, have a registry of buildings that contain asbestos. 

"People have to say enough is enough. We need to know," says Willems.

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With files from the CBC's Joseph Loiero