By Scotty Hertz
It’s extremely common if you work in the trades to stumble upon a stack of random garbage created by an anonymous sub contractor. The photo above might not look like much but I took it on the morning that the Canadian government announced a plan to “ban asbestos”. If it wasn’t marked with a little non-official sticker that says “COVER MATERIAL IS ASBESTOS“, one might not even know it was transite, an asbestos containing material used in countless building products up until their use was severely curtailed in the 1980s. Attempts were made by forward thinking workplaces to identify and label any hazards back then, which is fine until someone paints over the original label, as is the case here. If the paint was still wet or they couldn’t find the label maker, a contractor might walk away and forget about it. These sheets were sort of relabelled but that didn’t stop a 21st century worker from tossing them into an open air pile for us to find at the precise moment the Prime Minister made his statement about the “ban.”
You’ll notice the tile on top managed to break somehow, revealing the tell tale grey colour that positively ID’s this as a transite sheet. I’m not too concerned about snapping a photo of it but the questions mount. Who pulled them out? Whoever broke it has had a guaranteed exposure. Why were they painted over? If I return sometime in the future, will they still be lying here or will they have found their way into a dumpster to be someone else’s problem? There is no chain of ownership for this unassuming yet extremely hazardous junk but everyone from the original installer, the person who painted them, whoever left them here and the person who will eventually remove them either correctly or not will have been exposed. I didn’t touch them but I do wonder what lurks in the dust of this particular place. The much lauded ban does nothing to help this situation, one of many playing out across the nation daily.
The previous Conservative government’s climate change skeptic approach to most things extended to asbestos. They would make ridiculous declarations such as “asbestos is perfectly safe if handled correctly”, the logic being If we ship it somewhere else and they don’t take the proper precautions handling it, it’s not our problem. It’s similar to Tobacco Baron explanation that the cigarettes are only dangerous when you smoke them. In their view, it was your choice to go on the death march. It’s blame the smoker, blame the worker. There’s only a slight difference if a boss is ordering you to your potential doom. Sadly, the end result is usually the same.
Asbestos was once considered such a wonderful all-purpose material that the company who formerly made Kent cigarettes decided to use it in it’s “micronite” filter in the 1950s. They then advertised that their scientific design would protect people from the harmful effects of smoking. It was touted as “the greatest health protection in cigarette history.” Consuming them meant that dying from them was a statistical certainty. In on-going litigation, the parent company’s lawyers have previously argued that the filters were well made, so the plaintiffs must have gotten mesothelioma (asbestos cancer) some other way. Nearly everyone who worked in the plant where they produced the well made filters has allegedly succumbed to the disease. Asbestos cigarettes were an exception but this legacy issue shows just how ubiquitous it was at one point. Everyone needs to be vigilant about it because it hasn’t just disappeared overnight.
The list of asbestos cancer casualties is a long one and you’d be surprised by some of the famous names on it. Actor Steve McQueen. Musician Warren Zevon. Scientist Stephen Jay Gould. Former Conservative politician now lobbyist Chuck Strahl is still alive but was diagnosed with it in 2005. None of these people spent their entire workaday lives in an industrial setting yet they somehow managed to come in contact with this material somewhere. Is it possible that the discovery of massive quantities of asbestos on Parliament Hill during the never ending renovations prompted the change of heart from the top? Until quite recently, Canada was showering the globe with the stuff, contributing in no small part to the 90,000 reported casualties a year worldwide. The death toll doesn’t seem to be getting any smaller.
So before you start bashing into the walls when you are renovating the old house, or sweeping up that unsightly crap that fell off the radiator pipe, or ripping into the kitchen floor to lay down a new one, or hanging out in the hip old recording studio with the crumbling acoustic tiles – find out everything you can about asbestos and DO NOT tangle with it or try to remediate it yourself. The price might be too great. The Feds may have “banned” it but they have banned it before. It means very little if the threat remains unmarked and hidden in the dust.
A version of this article originally appeared at Spannerbook