Canada-wide asbestos inventory 'a positive step,' say health and safety advocates

After years of lobbying, an official public inventory of Canadian government buildings containing asbestos is now available online — and workplace health and safety advocates say the document is a good start.

Lists all buildings owned, leased by Public Services and Procurement Canada

Francesco Spertini holds a chunk of asbestos with his bare hands at the now-closed Jeffrey mine on Aug. 10 in Asbestos, Que. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

CBC's map detailing the federal buildings across the country containing asbestos has been updated with hundreds of new entries to reflect the newly released National Asbestos Inventory from Public Services and Procurement Canada.

Our map now includes more than 800 federal properties, including major airports, passport offices, shopping malls and office buildings.

After years of lobbying, an official public inventory of Canadian government buildings containing asbestos is now available online — and workplace health and safety advocates say the document is a good start.   

The government's major property owner, Public Services and Procurement Canada (formerly Public Works), has developed the National Asbestos Inventory, which lists all the buildings owned or leased by the department and indicates whether or not they contain asbestos.

For more than a decade, public health, political and labour groups have called for a national public registry of buildings that contain asbestos — a known carcinogen.

"Having a public registry puts pressure on the employer — in this case, the federal public service — to ensure that they do comply with existing laws and regulations. I think that's very much a positive step," said Denis St-Jean, national health and safety officer with the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC). 

The government has also announced that other federal departments will publish their own inventories within the next 12 months.


Public Services and Procurement Canada (red), Parks Canada (purple), Correctional Service Canada (yellow), Health Canada (light blue), Canada Revenue Agency (dark blue), Canadian Food Inspection Agency (orange), National Research Council (pink), Natural Resources Canada (green).

Employees have fallen sick, died

Over the years, federal workers like Howard Willems have fallen sick and died of asbestos-related cancers contracted while on the job. Willems, who died of mesothelioma in 2012, was exposed to asbestos while inspecting federal buildings as they were being renovated. 

Before he died, the Saskatoon man argued that "everyone has a right to know when they go into a workplace or when they're going into a building, it is safe." He began lobbying for a registry, with the help of PSAC and other unions. 

Asbestos in buildings is not necessarily dangerous, but it becomes a problem when the fibre is disturbed.

From time to time, contractors, electricians, plumbers, custodians, firefighters and cable installers unknowingly disrupt pipes, walls, ceilings and other materials that contain the toxic fibre.

While building managers are supposed to flag the existence of asbestos on the property, those notifications are not always accessible.

Public Services and Procurement Canada says any building it owns or leases must have an asbestos management plan in place, but some of the buildings on its new list lack a detailed description of where asbestos-containing materials can be found. 

That's a worrying limitation, said St-Jean.

"It's about how much detail you should have on that list. Here, all you have is a listing of all the buildings," St-Jean said.

"If the hazard is present, not only does the worker have a right to know about that hazard, but I think the public — if they do have access to that building — should know that there's a hazard in that building."

Public Services says it will work with landlords to ensure asbestos management plans are developed in the coming months.

Denis St-Jean, national health and safety officer for PSAC, said the creation of a national asbestos registry is a 'positive step.' (CBC)

As seen on the map, Public Services and Procurement Canada owns the majority of the facilities that contain asbestos.

Corrections Canada, Parks Canada, the Canada Revenue Agency, Natural Resources Canada, Global Affairs, Library and Archives Canada, Health Canada, the National Research Council, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency have all provided CBC with lists of buildings that contain asbestos — and they are also on the map.

Indigenous and Northern Affairs told CBC it "does not keep a record of buildings/properties on reserves that may contain asbestos. The management and maintenance of buildings is the responsibility of First Nations."

Transport Canada owns a number of ports, airports, seaway lands and buildings across the country, but tells CBC that it does not track asbestos contamination in a national database.

Calls for official registry of all public buildings

The Canadian Labour Congress is just one of the organizations calling for the federal government to lead the way with an official registry of all public buildings that contain asbestos.

"If [the government] shows the leadership to include their buildings, it makes it more difficult for the provinces and municipalities to escape participating in that registry. So we want that to happen," said labour congress president Hassan Yussuff.

Yussuff said an ideal registry would include schools, hospitals and banks, as well as federal buildings

Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, says the federal government needs to now create a registry for all public buildings containing asbestos — including banks, hospitals and schools. (Charlie Cho/CBC)

St-Jean said he's pleased with the progress the Liberal government has taken when it comes to policies concerning asbestos. 

"What we're waiting [for] right now is the total ban of any imports of asbestos-containing products, and my understanding is that discussions are on their way," St-Jean said.

"So I'm hoping there's going to be more, better news in the future."