Kurt Hilger may or may not have a deadly time bomb in his body. At age 14, he followed his father into work at the Cassiar asbestos mine in northern B.C. Dust from the mine and its two huge tailings piles was "all over the place," Hilger remembers.
"Mom would have to check to see which way the wind was blowing before she put the laundry out." His father Hartmut died painfully three years ago from mesothelioma, prompting Hilger to look into his own risks.
"My family doctor said, 'If you got it, there's not a lot you can do. So get used to it,' " says Hilger, 62, a B.C. Hydro electrician from the Slocan Valley near Nelson.
Asbestos problems are widespread across B.C.
In Powell River, Dave Ford's first symptom of asbestos-caused disease was breathing trouble.
A doctor diagnosed mesothelioma in June 2007, when Ford, 69, and his wife were just embarking on their dream retirement. "They were going to build a family home, start RVing," says daughter Tracy.
"They planned to spend their summers on an island off Powell River." Doctors told Ford, a former pulp mill electrician, that "there was nothing they could do for him," says Tracy, 41.
Desperate, the family flew Ford to San Francisco, where a surgeon cut out his cancerous lung lining, but they'll never know if the expensive intervention prolonged his life.
Sixteen months after he was diagnosed, Ford was dead.
Tracy founded the AREA Fund – Asbestos-related Research, Education and Advocacy Fund – (www.areafund.ca) – with her mother Lesley in March to raise money for asbestos research and education initiatives.
Meanwhile in Trail, United Steelworkers officials began noticing several years ago that many workers who had retired from Teck's (formerly Cominco) zinc and lead smelting plant were coming down with asbestos-caused diseases.
The union has identified nearly 100 victims, people who toiled in the smelter from the late 1940s to the late 1970s.
"I've seen first-hand what some of these people go through, and their families go through, and their grandchildren, and it's just horrible," says United Steelworkers Local 480 president Doug Jones.
"Somewhere along the way somebody has to be accountable for that. Someone has to be responsible for the shortened lives that people live and the pain and suffering that all the families go through. It just doesn't seem fair." Teck spokesman Richard Deane says the company spends up to $2 million a year removing asbestos from its plant.
"Ever since the negative health effects of asbestos were known, we've been working diligently to remove and deal with any trace of asbestos," Deane says, adding that the company's responsibility to sickened workers is covered by its contributions to WorkSafe.
To raise awareness of the issue, and in hopes of a response from politic-ians, Local 480 created a documentary video (www.uswlocal480.ca/ asbestosis-the-silent-killer) centred on the stories of victims.
"Everywhere you went there was asbestos," former worker Eno Bulfone, emaciated from mesothelioma and breathing off an oxygen tank, says on the video.
He died at 70 while the documentary was still being made. And he died angry that there would be no compensation for him or his family, says his widow Loretta, 68.
In 2002, the B.C. government passed legislation that meant workers filing WorkSafe B.C. claims after turning 65 would no longer receive government compensation beyond treatment and rehabilitation.
Victims and their families can join class-action suits to access money in trust funds set up by U.S. asbestos manufacturers. Or they can file a WorkSafe B.C. claim, and have the agency act for them in such lawsuits, as well as provide any WorkSafe benefits to which the victim or family is eligible.
Filing a claim requires giving up the right to sue independently.
Local 480 officials advise members to take the WorkSafe route, Jones says, because independent lawsuits may prove fruitless.
"Oftentimes, a lot of the [trust] money is eaten up in fighting the thing," Jones says.
WorkSafe could not provide a figure for the amount claimants usually get from the trust funds, but agency lawyer Gerald Massing says it's usually less than $100,000 and could be as little as $5,000.
While industrial and military exposures are mostly a thing of the past, asbestos remains a present-day menace to many B.C. workers, and to residents of older homes. Contractors and do-it-yourselfers are removing asbestos without proper precautions, out of ignorance or a desire to cut costs, says Al Johnson, WorkSafe B.C.'s chief of construction-regulation enforcement.
"On a fairly regular basis we get a call that somebody's demolishing a building or doing a renovation and there are no precautions at all." Floor tiles, drywall, insulation, stippled-texture coatings and even some caulks can contain asbestos, which may be released when the material is moved, broken or cut.
"It's invisible in the air. You can't taste it, smell it."
Facts on Asbestos
- What is it? First mined commercially in the 1850s in Italy, asbestos became known as the "miracle mineral" for its strength and resistance to extreme heat. A naturally occurring mineral, it's currently mined in only two places in Canada -- Thetford Mines and Asbestos, both in Quebec -- although there used to be mines in B.C. and other provinces.
- What is it used for? Because of its heat and fire-resistant properties, asbestos has been used for roofing, as thermal and electrical insulation, or mixed with cement to make pipes, sheets, flooring and other products.
- Why is it dangerous? When asbestos fibres are breathed in by humans over long periods, they can cause deadly diseases such as asbestosis (a chronic inflammatory lung condition), mesothelioma (a type of lung cancer) and other forms of cancer. There are two types of asbestos: serpentine (which includes chrysotile) and amphiboles. Some research suggests the amphiboles types are more dangerous to humans. But both types of asbestos are designated carcinogens by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization.
- Is it still used? Because of the health risks, asbestos is rarely used in Canada. It is being removed at great public expense from many schools and public institutions, including the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. But Canada still exports about $100 million worth of asbestos a year to developing nations, which don't have strict controls over its use. In comparison, more than 40 countries, including the European Union nations, have banned all use of asbestos.