Reporter's notebook

This week's ban of asbestos just the first step in ridding Canada of toxic substance

In the wake of the asbestos ban in Canada, reporter Julie Ireton reflects on her coverage of those affected by the deadly fibre, and looks ahead to what still needs to be done.

CBC reporter Julie Ireton reflects on her years of covering those affected by the deadly fibre

Fred Clare is VP of the Heat and Frost Insulators union. He was exposed to asbestos and has lost more co-workers than he can count. (CBC)

My dad is a licensed mechanic and taught high school for more than 30 years. Sometimes he'd give me lessons on car repair.

Once, I remember, he was fixing my brakes, explaining how some brake pads contain asbestos. Dad warned me not to blow the dust away with the air hose.

It wasn't until years later that I understood just how important that particular lesson was.

Now, after years of researching and reporting on the dangers of asbestos, I think all the time about my dad and brother, both mechanics, as well as other friends and family who work in the trades — electricians, contractors, renovators — who I know have all been exposed to asbestos on the job.

Minor hero in asbestos campaign

Fred Clare had family members who were exposed at work, too. He's now the vice-president of the Heat and Frost Insulators union, but they used to be called the "asbestos workers".

"We changed it because it's hard to get apprentices," he told me earlier this week, with a rueful laugh.

Fred Clare holds up a photo of his father and two uncles. All have now died of asbestos-related diseases. (CBC)
Then he got serious and pulled out an old photo, pointing to the smiling faces of his dad and two uncles.

All three men died of asbestos-related diseases. And he's now lost more co-workers than he can count.

Clare himself feels like a ticking time bomb, having worked as an insulator and knowing he too inhaled the dangerous fibres over the years.

In fact, Clare is a minor hero in the campaign to ban asbestos in Canada.

Back in May, it was Clare who stood up at a trade union conference in Ottawa, putting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the spot as cameras rolled, asking him when he was going to bring in a ban.

"He assured me his government recognized the dangers and the dangers outweighed anything else," said Clare. "To me that was a big day."

The beginning of the end

It was another big day this week, when the ban was finally announced

But for Clare, it's just the beginning of the end.

"God bless them for announcing this, but the government, they need help too," he said. "It's still out there. There's thousands and thousands of tonnes of it still there."

He said there's a "tremendous amount of work to be done" in terms of new regulations, enforcement and eventually abatement.

The problem is that asbestos hides in places that workers don't expect. For contractor Don Garrett, asbestos lurked in the gaskets of sinks and toilets in a B.C. prison where he was hired to do a job

Garrett said Public Works didn't follow its own requirement to produce a pre-construction, hazardous materials report. (CBC)
He was the first person I ever interviewed about the dangers of unknowingly coming into contact with asbestos.

"I'd breathed this material without a mask or any sort of containment for a whole week — wire brushing, scraping, filing — very difficult to remove," Garrett told me. "The whole floor was covered in this material."

He impressed upon me how important it was for workers to know which buildings contain asbestos before they start their work so they can stay safe.

And he made it clear that wasn't happening in government buildings and public facilities across Canada.

Inspiration to create my own registry

Former CRA electrician Denis Lapointe first blew the whistle about asbestos hazards inside 875 Heron Road last year.
Then I met Denis Lapointe, an electrician who blew the whistle on asbestos contamination inside the Canada Revenue Agency's Ottawa Tax Centre. After years, his complaints were finally validated when the federal government announced it was doing asbestos abatement there.

These men and others who were calling for an asbestos registry of public buildings inspired me to create an inventory myself.

After requests to two dozen federal departments and hours and hours of data entry, I created a user-friendly, interactive map last spring that identifies more than 800 federal facilities across the country that contain asbestos.

This fall, the government unveiled its own asbestos inventory.

Work just beginning

After the federal announced its ban this week, someone said to me, "The story is done, your work is over."

But I know it's not.

For campaigners like Clare who've lost loved ones — and know they're at risk of losing their own lives — the federal announcement this week is the first step. A positive one, for sure, but only the first.

Tens of thousands of buildings and homes still contain asbestos and likely will for decades.

Provinces and municipalities will also have to create their own registries, rules and regulations. Asbestos is the top cause of occupational death in Canada and claims more than 2,000 lives a year. It can cause disease and cancers in people 10 to 40 years after they inhale a fibre.

There are many more stories still to come.

About the Author

Julie Ireton

Senior Reporter

Julie Ireton is a senior reporter who works on investigations and enterprise news features at CBC Ottawa. You can reach her at julie.ireton@cbc.ca