August 31, 2011
by: Michaela Keyserlingk
Like many Canadians we lived, at least in our eyes, happy and satisfying lives. Like many others we married forty-six years ago, were lucky enough to have had rewarding jobs, had children who all found their own niches and who produced adorable grandchildren. Retirement was there to do all the things for which we did not have enough time during our busy working- lives. Top of the list, as for many of us, were endless summers at the cottage gardening. It should have ended - as all good stories do…. so they lived happily ever after.
But real life is not always a fairy story. In May 2007 my husband, who had run marathons, was a non-smoker and had lived a healthy life, developed trouble breathing. His right chest was filled with fluid which was pressing on his lung. Doctors kept on asking him if he had ever worked with asbestos. My husband was a University history professor, hardly a profession where you would come in contact with asbestos. But questions persisted; had he been on ships? There it was! In his youth 40 years ago, while in university he had been for a number of glorious summers a naval cadet on Canadian naval ships. The navy had used asbestos generously to fireproof and insulate pipes and wiring all over their ships. None of the present safety regulations were yet in place. Neither my husband nor the other sailors aboard these ships realized that with every breath they were inhaling invisible asbestos fibers, a substance that would cause many of them to fall ill with cancer and asbestosis years later.
Asbestos has been used all through the industrialized world with what we now know are devastating consequences. Workers who came in contact with asbestos fibers are at an extremely high risk of developing cancer and asbestosis many years later. They brought the deadly fibers home on their clothing exposing their unsuspecting families to breath in the same deadly threat. By the 1990's asbestos was banned in the Western world. In the developed world, only Canada continued to mine chrysotile (white) asbestos which de facto can not be used in Canada except under the strictest safety regulations which call for extensive training and certified personal protective equipment.
My husband was diagnosed with mesothelioma. When we received his diagnosis our life changed totally. He, and with him his family, entered another world which was different from everything we had known. This disabling cancer attacks the internal wall around the lungs and the respiratory system caused from earlier exposure to asbestos. There are many other Canadians afflicted with the same deadly cancer: it is Canada's major cause of work-related deaths. There is no cure, no hope, and no release but certain death, which follows usually in the first year after diagnosis. In all cases asbestos is the villain. My husband entered a world of trial drugs, chemo therapy and palliative radiation treatments, embolisms and chest infections. The gift we received was the knowledge that our children are here for us 24 hours a day; so are our friends. We also discovered that the Canadian health system is unparalleled when you have cancer. It is staffed by outstanding professionals, delivering prompt and caring services and in our case the Department of Veterans Affairs has done all it can to help us.
Relatively speaking we are the lucky ones; my husband is still with us nearly two years after his cancer was discovered. During this time, we daily learn more about his dreadful disease. But the most disturbing realization is that Canada is the only member of the G8 to still mine and export chrysotile asbestos to developing nations such as India and China. 200,000 tons yearly are shipped to unsuspecting workers in Asian and African countries. There Canadian chrysotile asbestos is used to reinforce cement in building materials.
We Canadians cannot enforce our safety standards in developing countries. We cannot ensure that foreign workers handling Canadian chrysotile asbestos are protected by the same strict safety regulations as exist in Canada. In fact, we know that there are no safety regulations for handling asbestos in those countries. There workers come home with the deadly fibers in their chests, lungs and on their clothing endangering their families as used to happen here. What we could do as a minimum, but do not, is label the bags containing Canadian chrysotile asbestos as carcinogenic. On June 10, 2009 CBC television aired a documentary by Melissa Fung which clearly illustrated how deadly asbestos is in the hands of untrained and unprotected Indian workers. The first cases of asbestosis and mesothelioma are just starting to surface in India.
As much as I wish, I am unable to change my husband's sickness. But I, my family and our friends will not stand by and watch how unsuspecting thousands of workers in the developing world are exposed to my husbands suffering without doing a thing about it. We cannot rest until our government stops this deadly export. I have written numerous letters to Prime Minister Stephan Harper, his cabinet colleagues and to the Leader of the Opposition Michael Ignatieff. Most of my letters are not even acknowledged, and if they are, I am fed standard noncommittal government paragraphs how safe asbestos is if handled properly and how it is not our job to police working standards in other countries.
We are not alone in our moral outrage. The Canadian Cancer Society, the Canadian Medical Association, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the World Health Organization and reputable Canadian university scientists all agree that chrysotile asbestos is a dangerous carcinogen. The European Union, and many other countries have repeatedly condemned Canada's export of chrysotile asbestos to developing nations. Our reputation as Canadians is on the line. The export of Canadian chrysotile asbestos to developing nations has to stop. Otherwise, the death from cancer of those many Canadians including my husband will have been for naught.