The fight to completely ban asbestos in the United States has been a difficult one to say the least. Despite the tens of thousands of deaths attributed to asbestos exposure each year, there has been no federal legislation aimed at reducing the reach of this toxic mineral since 1989—and even then, that law was overturned by an appeals court in 1991.
It’s a frustrating state of affairs when one looks at how the mortality rate of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases has held more or less steady in recent decades. It’s even more frustrating when you consider the fact that most other developed nations banned the substance ages ago. Still, the U.S. is not alone.
On the Rise in Our Neighbor to the North
Interestingly enough, one of the only other developed countries yet to outlaw asbestos is America’s neighbor to the north, Canada. In fact, up until 2011, Canada was actually still mining the stuff — and enough of it to list the country among the top asbestos producers in the world – right up there with Russia. While Canada’s federal government has since taken the right step in announcing it would no longer block attempts to ban or control the asbestos trade, the legacy of the deadly mineral carries on.
According to recent figures published by Statistics Canada, the rate of asbestos-related diseases — particularly mesothelioma — is on the rise. In 2012, there were 560 new documented cases of malignant mesothelioma, up from 276 in 1992. Coincidentally, 2012 was the same year that the newly elected provincial government of Quebec canceled a federal load that would have reopened one of Canada’s last remaining asbestos mines.
Nonetheless, Canada’s mortality rate from mesothelioma has grown. Between 2000 and 2012, 467 Canadians died as a result of mesothelioma, marking a 60 percent increase over the previous period.
“What [the figures] show is shocking because they show that in the past 20 years, the number of cases have doubled and the numbers just keep going up,” said Kathleen Ruff, a human rights activist and anti-asbestos campaigner, in an interview with the National Post. “And that only represents part of the picture.”
As Ruff explained, Canadian scientists and health experts who study asbestos-related diseases point out that there are “at least twice as many cases of lung cancers caused by exposure to asbestos.”
Here for the Long Run
It’s certainly true that these figures pale in comparison to the U.S., where each year thousands of people die from malignant mesothelioma alone, but that’s mostly due to Canada’s smaller population. The country’s recent move to end the commercial production of asbestos only goes so far to end the public health impact of asbestos. The real tragedy is that asbestos continues to poison communities long after it’s been banned — and that’s as true in Canada as it is in the U.S., U.K., or India.
This is a sobering but important fact for activists striving to completely outlaw asbestos in America. While a complete federal ban would certainly help reduce the spread of asbestos-related diseases, it may be years before any such improvements would be noticed. Mesothelioma, in particular, is especially difficult to monitor and predict because the average latency period between exposure and diagnosis is 35 to 50 years. So, even if you could round up all remaining asbestos in the world, put it in a rocket ship and fire it into the sun, we’d still be dealing with the health consequences of the stuff five decades from now.
But we should never let that dishearten us – the time to ban asbestos was yesterday!