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In The News, Materials & Assemblies

Asbestos: A Living Lesson In Our Fight With Toxic Spray Foam

March 20, 2018

In our quest to make a less toxic world, 475 often focuses on how, today, too often professionals are insisting on filling buildings with toxic, bioaccumulative, plastic spray foam insulations. It seems obvious enough, that as we seek to limit plastic bag use and use biodegradable materials in our everyday lives – that we would also do so in the buildings we design and build. Yet there is a disconnect – as our workers, occupants and the biosphere itself continue to be under assault by spray foam.

There is much work to do, and nothing can be taken for granted. Like the insane re-emergence of polio, even something we generally think as confined to the dustbin of history, lives on like a bad zombie movie. Asbestos is such a WTF realization. Global Asbestos Awareness Week (April 1-7), gives us the opportunity to reflect on this poisonous bad actor.

The need for awareness among building professionals is beared out in numbers, as asbestos accounts for half of all occupational cancer and 10,000 American citizens die annually from asbestos-related health complications, TODAY. In a recent report CBC News reported a total of 1,900 lung cancer cases and 430 mesothelioma cases were counted in 2011 in Canada due to asbestos exposure.

Risky exposure occurs when asbestos mineral fibers are inhaled or ingested, and does not necessary have to be firsthand. Secondhand exposure can occur by carrying dust home on clothing, hair, or equipment. This exposure can lead to a variety of ailments including asbestosis, pleural plaque, pneumothorax, asbestos warts, and lung cancer. All types of asbestos have at least some connection to the even more serious disease: mesothelioma. This rare type of cancer can take decades to develop with a strikingly low survival rate.

Asbestos has 150 years of history in Eastern Canada, with the first mines appearing in Quebec in the mid-to-late 1800s. Some of the biggest asbestos mines in the world were operated in parts of Southwestern Ontario and Quebec, operating well into the 21st century. Canada became the global leader in asbestos exports, making it no surprise that it has taken this long to justify a complete wind down of its production and sale.

Just this year, Canadian government agencies arrived at the point of banning the mineral outright. Two government agencies: Environment and Climate Change Canada and Health Canada are now sponsoring a comprehensive ban on asbestos, with the promise to pass legislation this year.

Health advocates say even the proposed ban does not go far enough. Among other exceptions, “the proposed asbestos regulations would also not apply to… mining residues, which are a leftover legacy from decades of asbestos mining. An estimated 800 million tons of asbestos mining residues remain in Quebec. The only exceptions to this are the sale and use of the residues for construction and landscaping — unless authorized by the province — and the use of the residues to manufacture an asbestos-containing product.” (source)

As a building professional, with some of the greatest occupational risk of exposure, consider calling your elected officials to throw support behind the passage of the Prohibition of Asbestos and Asbestos Products Regulations, and the continued strengthening of those regulations.

The lessons of asbestos have not yet sunk in. Maybe that’s why we can collectively tolerate spray foam so widely. Now, the list of asbestos abatement methods includes covering the risk areas in spray foam to lock it in. We could not think of a worse treatment, simultaneously locking in the toxin for a future generation to take care of, and coating it in the next in line to be banned and systematically removed from buildings.


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