Toronto

Troubling health problems emerge among GE workers

Thousands of workers at a General Electric plant in Peterborough may have been exposed to asbestos and other toxic substances.

Thousands of workers at a General Electric plant in Peterborough may have been exposed to asbestos and other toxic substances.

Peterborough's medical officer of health recently discovered a high number of cancers and asbestos-related diseases in workers formerly employed at the plant.

Dr. Noel Kerin is heading a team of four doctors investigating health problems associated with General Electric.

Dr. Kerin said 50 of 123 former GE workers he examined had serious diseases, including asbestosis and cancer.

The workers were among 700 who attended clinics set up in Peterborough by the Canadian Auto Workers union. Many of the 700 have yet to be assessed.

General Electric has not commented on the findings.

1,000 cases possible

The GE plant processed asbestos from the mid-50s to the 1970s and employed up to 5,500 people at a time.

If even 5,000 people had heavy exposure to asbestos, Peterborough may be facing 1,000 cases of asbestosis, Dr. Kerin said.

Peterborough's board of health has asked Dr. Garry Humphreys to draft a plan to deal with the serious public health issues Kerin's findings raise.

Doctors are concerned there are many workers out there who have never been screened. Wives of workers exposed to asbestos might also be at risk.

One option might be to set up an assessment program in the community for others who were exposed to the deadly fibres and chemicals.

Asbestos was confirmed as a deadly carcinogen in the 1970s, after thousands of miners and workers had been exposed to it.

GE employees remember snowball fights with loose asbestos. Some took bags home to stuff in their attics as insulation.

Most claims denied

The Workers Compensation Board has approved only two of 22 claims for compensation for asbestos-related disease.

One of them was 40-year GE employee Morris Hughes, who died last year of mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer, at age 71. His widow Aileen went public with criticism of GE, prompting the CAW to set up the clinics.

The CAW will use Kerin's report to file more claims.

Nick De Carlo, a CAW national representative in the health and safety department, says both GE and the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board should be providing resources for more screening.

So far, the compensation board has "refused to fund occupational health clinics for workers," he said.

with files from Canadian Press

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