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In the early 1980s, CUPEs determined campaign to rid schools, hospitals and other public buildings of asbestos brought results. But many locals are finding the battle is far from over, as CUPE members confront new asbestos exposures in their workplaces.

Although efforts to eliminate asbestos continue to this day, reports from locals across Canada to the Health and Safety Branch are sounding alarm bells. Employers and governments seem to have forgotten the massive efforts waged by CUPE, other unions and health and safety activists to protect workers from asbestos exposure.

For example, custodial staff in schools and hospitals are being directed to carry out procedures that some employers are classifying as low risk or minimal danger asbestos work. Some of this work involves removing or cleaning up asbestos and asbestos-containing material as part of their custodial duties. These workers are not being told the whole story about the hazards of asbestos exposure, nor are they being trained in dealing with the deadly material.

Widespread, invisible hazard

It would be difficult, even today, to find a public building in Canada that does not use asbestos in some way. Sprayed material containing asbestos was widely used between 1945 and 1972 in the construction of most public buildings. Asbestos can be found on pipes in heating and air conditioning units. In addition to being sprayed as fireproofing on structures such as overhead steel beams, walls and pipes, asbestos was used extensively in ceiling, acoustical and floor tiles.

Asbestos-containing ceiling tiles are a source of exposure if they are damaged or crumbling. For example, many school gymnasium ceiling tiles are damaged by balls, releasing tiny asbestos fibres into the air.

Asbestos fibers are microscopic, and so cant be seen by the naked eye. It takes more than a million fibres, laid end-to-end, to span one meter. Once airborne, the fibres are almost weightless and float in the air almost indefinitely, invisibly doing their deadly work. Once they enter the body, the fibres cannot be destroyed, nor can the body rid itself of them.

This is where the trouble starts. Asbestos is a well-documented carcinogen. There are no cures for asbestos-related cancer or for another disease called asbestosis, which causes scarring of the lungs in areas where the asbestos fibres are lodged. These diseases have a long latency period 20 or more years may pass before onset.

Mesothelioma is one of the cancers that develops in the tissue lining the chest and stomach. It is a painful and fatal disease and is just one of the real and compelling reasons to eliminate asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma has already killed a number of CUPE members in schools. They did not, as employers and government would like us to believe, have high exposures to asbestos fibres.

International epidemic predicted

The asbestos crisis spreads far beyond Canada, with indications that asbestos will kill an unprecedented number of workers worldwide. Researchers warn that an asbestos cancer epidemic in Western Europe will claim as many as 500,000 lives. In January, Britains Cancer Research Campaign said its study of the European epidemic should set off alarm bells everywhere. Dr. Julian Peto, head of epidemiology at the University of London and author of the study, questions claims that the use of asbestos can be controlled. When the Globe and Mail asked him who has the capability to safely handle asbestos products in the marketplace, Peto said flatly, Nobody does.

CUPE wants to avert a Canadian asbestos epidemic. That means taking immediate action. All locals should demand that their workplaces be inspected for asbestos. The location of asbestos-containing materials must be inventoried, labeled and action taken to prevent exposure. CUPEs position is that the only way to control exposures is to remove asbestos from the workplace once and for all. Workers will not let employers gamble with their health. The cost is simply too high.

Anthony Pizzino