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BREATHTAKING: a personal investigation into the present-day use of asbestos


The silent killer is in our homes, our schools, our hospitals — our lives. Every year it causes the deaths of more BC workers than any other occupational cause. Yet Canada continues to export 120,000 tonnes of asbestos annually from mines in Quebec, pushing the annual death toll from asbestos-related disease to more than 100,000 people in India and other South Asian countries.

That’s the backdrop to Ontario filmmaker Kathleen Mullen’s new documentary Breathtaking, which will have its B.C. premiere Thursday June 16 in recognition of Injured Workers’ Day.

A panel discussion will follow the film’s screening, featuring Kathryn Seely, public issues manager with the BC-Yukon Chapter of the Canadian Cancer Society, Doug Jones, president of Local 480 of the United Steelworkers in Trail, Wayne Peppard, past executive director of the BC-Yukon Building Trades Council, and Tracy Ford, whose father died of mesothelioma in 2008. Mae Burrows, a director of Toxic Free Canada, will moderate the panel.

In 2003, filmmaker Mullen lost her father, Richard, to mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs and abdominal cavity that is uniquely associated with exposure to asbestos. Her grief and determination to understand the cause led her to a deeply moving and personal inquiry into the deadly mineral’s role in economy and people’s lives.

Commercially mined since the Industrial Revolution, asbestos has been known as the magic mineral because of its fireproof properties and its thread-like fibres that can be woven and milled into thousands of different products. Used in everything from automotive brake pads to wallboard — it was even sold in powdered form as a craft product for children to make hand puppets — it drove production from mines ranging from Cassiar, BC and Thetford Mines QC to Russia and Zimbabwe. Asbestos use in Canada was phased out in the 1980s — a half century after research studies first demonstrated it was carcinogenic — but asbestos is still mined in Quebec and exported for use in developing countries with the support of the federal and Quebec governments.

Using video clips of her dying father’s legal testimony, family photos, and Super 8 home movies as a narrative springboard, Mullen takes the audience on an investigative journey from her family’s home in Sechelt to the asbestos mines of Quebec, from construction sites in India and back to the auto industry in Detroit, painting a global, yet still personal picture of the many lives affected by the continued use of asbestos.


Panel discussion

The expert panel will be probing a number of issues relating to asbestos exposure in B.C.:


Not just an occupational hazard

Asbestos exposure isn’t just an issue for workers. Nor is it just a problem of the past.

Because of the widespread use of asbestos from the 1920s through the 1970s, thousands of older Canadian homes contain asbestos in ceiling tiles, furnace duct taping, wallboard, floor tiles and other materials — creating a widespread potential for exposure during renovations and repairs. In addition, many public buildings, including schools, hospitals and airport facilities, posing a continuing problem during repairs and even routine maintenance.


Workers are not being protected from asbestos exposure

A recent investigation by WorkSafeBC revealed that several asbestos removal companies operating in B.C. were regularly exposing their workers to asbestos, either by not revealing the potential for exposures to asbestos or not providing protective gear as required by regulations. In one case, a company repeatedly falsified lab reports to hide the existence of asbestos during building demolitions.

But even beyond those cases, thousands of workers in the building trades, shipyard and other industries are still exposed to asbestos during building repairs and renovations.

Asbestos-related diseases — including mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer — are the leading cause of occupational death in B.C. In 2009, the most recent year for which WorkSafeBC statistics are available, 53 of 121 fatalities were the result of asbestos exposure. That trend is expected to continue.


The case for compensation

Despite the grim toll, many workers and their families are not being compensated for asbestos-related disease and death. Between 1970 and 2005, only 35 per cent of mesothelioma patients received compensation. Not only those affected by asbestos-related disease denied a basic right, but also costs are wrongly shifted to the public healthy care system, instead of being borne by the compensation system, which is funded by employer premiums.


An end to the production and export of asbestos

As if the terrible legacy of asbestos in this country was not enough, Canada continues to support the mining of asbestos in Quebec and to allow the export of 120,000 tonnes annually. The federal government has repeatedly blocked efforts to have asbestos listed as a hazardous material under the Rotterdam Convention.

From Canada, asbestos is shipped to India and other developing countries where it is used in a variety of construction materials — thereby exposing thousands more workers to its cancer-causing effects. The World Health Organization estimates that 107,000 people world-wide die each year from asbestos-related disease.

In this country, many leading unions, environmental organizations and, most recently, the Canadian Cancer Society have called on the federal government to eliminate all sources of exposure to asbestos. Continuing pressure on the federal government could finally win a ban on the production an export of asbestos.


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