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Asbestos claims rising.

Asbestos-related claims are on the rise and anticipated to increase into the future, says a Workplace Safety & Insurance Board (WSIB) official.


In fact, mesothelioma (an asbestos-related illness) claims have doubled in the last five years, according to Fergus Kerr, director of the Occupational Disease and Survivor Benefit program.

"We allowed 90 claims last year for mesothelioma," Kerr says. "It is our projection that it will continue to increase."

Although that may not seem significant, a typical claim for the deadly disease averages around $500,000. The high price tag on the claims is attributed to the latency period of the illness (anywhere from 10 to 40 years) and the type of illness, which Kerr describes as probably the nastiest way to die, as it is a lingering death.

"Essentially, you drown in your own body, because it affects the pleural, the lining of the heart and lungs," he says. "It is incurable."

Another asbestos-related illness along side mesothelioma is asbestosis. Both are described as a "schedule for disease," meaning it is a scheduled occupational disease that is automatically compensable. Therefore, one would have to be involved in any specific process, mining, milling, manufacturing, assembling, construction, repair, etc., involving the generation of airborne asbestos where fibres were inhaled to acquire the disease.

Kerr says in many cases the claims are from survivors of workers who have already died.

"We compensate the survivors back to the date of death."

Eighty-five per cent of the salary is compensable, and paid to survivors depending upon age and number of dependents, along with pensions, burial costs and interest.

Other types of asbestos-related diseases are benign pleural diseases, pleural plaques and lung cancer; however, they require evidence of exposure.

"One of the challenges in the compensation of occupational diseases is a) determining exposures, and b) to determine the diagnosis, making sure there is a connection between the two," Kerr says. Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral found all over the world. First discovered in Quebec by Joseph Fecteau in 1876, asbestos soon became the wonder material of the late 19th and 20th centuries, due to its strength and heat- and rot-resistant properties.

Consequently, it was widely used by industry for reinforcing products, friction materials, high temperature seals and gaskets, and later, insulation.

The number of asbestos mines in Quebec increased as the product became more popular in the mid-20th century. The town of Asbestos (formerly Shipton) received its name in recognition of the mineral that helped establish the industry and economic growth in the area. Some mines in Northern Ontario near Timmins and the Kirkland Lake/Larder Lake regions also mined and milled asbestos as early as 1917, although the brunt of it occurred during the 1950s and '60s when demand was high.

Today, there are only two companies (three producing mines) in the Quebec towns of Thetford and Asbestos still mining chrysotile asbestos in Canada.

Health Canada categorizes the different types of asbestos under two broad mineralogical groups: serpentine (chrysotile) and amphibole (tremolite, actinolite, amosite, anthophyllite, crocidolite, etc).

The amphibole asbestos has different physical and chemical properties from chrysotile, states a Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) report. It contains more iron and resists acid and extremely high temperatures. However, amphibole fibres stay much longer in the lungs than chrysotile fibres and they are more likely to inflict damage and cause disease, including cancer, states Health Canada's website.

The amphibole group of asbestos is listed under the Hazardous Products Act (crocidolite asbestos) with specific regulations pertaining to its import and use. Due to health concerns, it is no longer or marginally used. It has also been banned in many other countries worldwide.

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA), asbestos is one of 11 designated substances defined as a biological, chemical, or physical agent, or any combination of these, to which the exposure of a worker is prohibited, regulated, restricted, limited or controlled, according to the WSIB website.

Asbestos is also on the Toxic Substance list within the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA).

Jean-Francois Banville, Environment Canada's senior engineer of the Air Issues Unit, says asbestos has been on the toxic list since the '70s.

It was first issued under the Clean Air Act in 1977, to limit the concentration of asbestos fibres in gases emitted into the ambient air at asbestos mines or mills.

The government of Canada differentiates between the two groups of asbestos. With restrictions and regulations, it promotes the safe use of the serpentine group--chrysotile.

NRCan reports the danger of cancer from chrysotile is 10 to 500 times less than that from amphiboles (Hodgson et al., 2000, Chrysotile report).

Banville says the idea in Canada is to apply the safety rules of asbestos. Because the product has been studied for more than 30 to 40 years, "we know how to use it well and how to mitigate the impact on health by using specific equipment, with specific protocol to decrease the exposition of the workers."

As a substance of intense scientific and medical scrutiny, the use of amphibole asbestos along with past practices and products that allowed fibres to be released into the air (like spray insulation) was blamed more so for asbestos-related illnesses.

However, when the WSIB adjudicates an asbestos claim, it does not differentiate between the types of asbestos, Kerr says.

In reaction to the controversy, the Government of Canada established the Chrysotile Institute in 1984. It is a non-profit organization made up of industry, labour and government representatives intended to provide information and promote the safe use of chrysotile asbestos.

At the same time, a 900-page, three-volume report of The Royal Commission on Matters of Health and Safety Arising from the Use of Asbestos in Ontario, 1984, was published, explaining the analysis of the health effects of asbestos.

Today, chrysotile-based manufactured products are encapsulated in cement or resin, preventing fibres from dispersing into the environment.

Kerr agrees that if the fibres are encased, and no one is going to chip it, drill into it, or try and remove it, it is safe.

"You are right in saying that if you don't touch it, and it's undisturbed, it poses little risk," he says. "But can anybody guarantee it?"

Regulations have also been enforced with respect to the safe removal of asbestos from buildings.

Presently, chrysotile represents nearly 100 per cent of the "asbestos" produced and used worldwide, according to NRCan. Canada is the world's fourth largest producer, and exports 95 per cent of its asbestos. The majority of sales are to Asian countries with emerging water, sewage and construction infrastructure needs.

Besides exporting, NRCan states that in 2004 Canada imported more than 50,000 tonnes of manufactured products from more than 40 countries valued at $114 million. Those main imports were friction materials, tubes and pipes, corrugated sheets and panels, paper, millboard, clothing and other chrysotile-based materials.

In light of the occupational diseases caused by asbestos, many lobby groups have objected to Canada's position on the safe use of chrysotile and its exportation. Some of the concerns question whether the product should be exported, particularly to developing countries that may not have the resources, infrastructure and capacity to enforce safe use.

Presently, efforts are underway to extend the production life of the asbestos mines in Quebec. NRCan states workers at Bell mine in Thetford, Quebec, ratified a 6-and-a-half-year collective agreement in June 2005. One-hundred forty million dollars have been invested for the development of the underground mine, designed to produce 250,000 tonnes per year of chrysotile fibres for at least 25 years.

In the meantime, the number of WSIB asbestos-related insurance claims are rising. Kerr says in the coming years, there will be some increase in the cost to the system, but adds they have anticipated financial increases.

"We have funded it so far and see no reason not to be able to (continue)," he says. "Eventually, that cost, as is all our costs, will be passed on to the employer."


Northern Ontario Business
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:asbestos related disease trends and forecast
Author:Larmour, Adelle
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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