Canada's Agriculture Minister Chuck Strahl Breaks Ranks with His Own Party over Asbestos

CBC Radio - The House
April 29, 2006

CHUCK STRAHL (AGRICULTURE MINISTER): Canada spent a fair bit of time and energy -- and]

KATHERINE CANTY (HOST): - Canada's agriculture minister Chuck Strahl breaks ranks with his own party over asbestos.

CHUCK STRAHL (AGRICULTURE MINISTER): Canada spent a fair bit of time and energy -- and money also - on promoting the product internationally. And I always think that's a job for the business, and I'd just as soon the Canadian government didn't spend money to promote a product that some countries are going to question our stand on. - Thousands of Canadians used to work around asbestos, people doing industrial work, breathing hard, breathing in those asbestos fibres. What they didn't know is they've been on a path towards death. Now 20, 30 years later, many are getting a diagnosis they never expected. If mesothelioma develops, the cancer is quick. Often they're given just three months to live. CBC researched databases obtained from workers' insurance boards across the country. Our research reveals claims related to asbestos exposure are dramatically increasing. It's a trend that's only expected to get worse over the coming decade. The CBC's Alison Myers brings us a look at how it's affecting one family in her documentary "A Long Goodbye".


MIKE (KAREN HEWITT'S (SPELL) SON): Nice to meet you.

ALISON MYERS (REPORTER): Hi, nice to meet you too.



ALISON MYERS (REPORTER): (Inaudible) Alison.

UNIDENTIFIED FAMILY MEMBER: I need the keys for your car.

ALISON MYERS (REPORTER): Karen Hewitt (spell) hands over the keys to what was her husband Glen's (spell) pride and joy.

KAREN HEWITT (SPELL) (WIDOW OF GLEN HEWITT (SPELL)): Here you go. Studebaker Avanti. 1964 Studebaker Avanti. And it was taken down, right down to the frame, and restored.

ALISON MYERS (REPORTER): Mike and Randy are trying to get the Studebaker to start. This car hasn't moved an inch in years. They had asked Glen if they could use the car for the funeral.

KAREN HEWITT (SPELL) (WIDOW OF GLEN HEWITT (SPELL)): His excuse to my son was that the power steering box was leaking. So Mike said no, we can't drive the car 'cause the power steering box is leaking. So then, after the funeral Mike goes out to look, 'cause he figured he needed to get the part so he could fix it. And he came in and he said, "That asshole!" He said, "There is no leak in that power steering box at all!" And it was just his excuse so no one would drive his car.

ALISON MYERS (REPORTER): Glen Hewitt lived for his cars. That passion was the reason he died last fall, the result of his work as a young mechanic, grinding brake shoes lined with asbestos. The tiny fibres spent 30 years nestled in his lungs, and then they gave him cancer. Karen and Glen had been married for 35 years.

KAREN HEWITT (SPELL) (WIDOW OF GLEN HEWITT (SPELL)): We got engaged when I was 19, I guess. If you could picture our houses, one on each corner, and being a mechanic and having race cars, and doing all this stuff, their yard was a mass of motors and engine parts and junk, and so we would look out our window onto their garbage, right. So the night we got engaged his dad showed up with a bottle of Scotch and two pistons, and said to my dad, "It's your garbage now." But no, we just... everything we did we did together, and we... if he was working on a motor, I was working on a motor. You know, it was just like that was life; life was just the two of us. And it was always that way. Whoa! What a lot of blue smoke!

ALISON MYERS (REPORTER): The Studebaker has come back to life. The wheels inch forward and the car starts its trip to the garage. (Engine running)

KAREN HEWITT (SPELL) (WIDOW OF GLEN HEWITT (SPELL)): You always have that kind of false hope thing, you know? And I guess though they give you a time limit -- and it was three months to 24 months -- you never really think you're going to get to that 24 months. It's kind of like being on death row, like, "Okay, it's a stay of execution; we've made it another go 'round of chemo." So I think that's a pretty tough piece. So I'm not sure that reality ever sets in as far as the fact that you actually accept that you're dying. He... Can we stop for a minute? This is like, whoa.

ALISON MYERS (REPORTER): Sure. Sure, sure.

NOREEN HALL (B.C. CARPENTERS' UNION): Yeah, I keep a file on asbestos, because obviously you have to be up to date on the medical literature that's out there, making sure that, you know, you do the best you can for your client.

ALISON MYERS (REPORTER): In a small, quiet office in Vancouver, Noreen Hall (spell) looks over some statistics published by B.C.'s Workers' Compensation Board. Hall is the workers' compensation advocate for the B.C. Carpenters' Union. Over a 25-year period, she says there were 870 claims submitted because of asbestos.

NOREEN HALL (B.C. CARPENTERS' UNION): Well I'm noticing a real increase in the number of people coming in wanting to submit claims to Workers' Compensation for asbestos exposure. And so I'm noticing, you know, the little clusters of people that worked on the same projects coming in.

ALISON MYERS (REPORTER): People who built downtown Vancouver in the '70s are dying now. That is how long asbestos fibres incubate in the lungs. It can take two to three decades before they start to kill you. By the time people come to Noreen Hall, they usually don't have much longer to live.

NOREEN HALL (B.C. CARPENTERS' UNION): Most of the ones assumed over the years they had asthma. And so most of them that came in were given really poor prognosis. A lot of them have passed away in the last six... six, eight months. So I think there's two out of six that are still alive, but they're not doing very well.

ALISON MYERS (REPORTER): A startling picture of just how many people have been exposed to asbestos is only just starting to emerge. In Alberta, the most frequent occupational diseases accepted by the Workers' Compensation Board are those caused by asbestos exposure. Asbestosis and mesothelioma claims are rising, especially among people who worked in forestry, mining, oil and gas. This is only the beginning. Deaths likely won't peak until 2015, and will continue for decades.

DON WHITE (SPELL) (B.C.'S HAZARDOUS MATERIALS ASSOCIATION): This is a sample of asbestos ore. It's from the Cassiar asbestos mine. Asbestos had the nickname "the miracle fibre of the 20th century". Unfortunately, the asbestos fibres themselves turned out to be a health hazard.

ALISON MYERS (REPORTER): It's now Don White's (spell) mission to teach people how to avoid exposure to asbestos. As the manager of B.C.'s Hazardous Materials Association, he wants to see a certification program developed. People who work with asbestos are supposed to follow strict guidelines, such as using a three-chambered decontamination facility. White's concern is that no one knows whether those precautions are enough.

DON WHITE (SPELL) (B.C.'S HAZARDOUS MATERIALS ASSOCIATION): The honest answer to that is we don't know for sure. But what we do know is that when workers were handling asbestos materials without any sort of precautions, that the asbestos-related disease issue became almost an epidemic.

ALISON MYERS (REPORTER): So would it be fair to say that there are some people doing this work that aren't taking the precautions that might be putting the people who work in those buildings at risk?

DON WHITE (SPELL) (B.C.'S HAZARDOUS MATERIALS ASSOCIATION): I would think so. I guess more than I think so. I know so.

ALISON MYERS (REPORTER): WorkSafe B.C.'s magazine publishes incidents involving companies that have been fined for workplace safety issues. In the December 2005 issue, a company was fined close to 7000 dollars for exposing workers. The company paid the fine. The workers will now wait three decades to find out if that exposure will kill them.

DON WHITE (SPELL) (B.C.'S HAZARDOUS MATERIALS ASSOCIATION): I am just coming now into the latency period where if something's going to show up it's getting to be that time. I worked in Cassiar for about five months, a summer while I was going to university.

ALISON MYERS (REPORTER): And what kind of protection did you wear?

DON WHITE (SPELL) (B.C.'S HAZARDOUS MATERIALS ASSOCIATION): Zero. Zero protection. And same with all of the people who worked in there...

ALISON MYERS (REPORTER): Asbestos is still mined in Canada. The majority of the product isn't used domestically; it's sold overseas, often in developing countries, where there are fewer restrictions on its use. Minister of Agriculture Chuck Strahl says that creates a dilemma for the federal government.

CHUCK STRAHL (AGRICULTURE MINISTER): In Canada, we use lots of dangerous products, and we use them safely. The problem when you ship them to a developing country, all control is lost. And that's the dilemma we have, is how do we sell a product if we can't control its end use? But Canada spent a fair bit of time and energy, and money also, on promoting the product internationally. And I always think that's a job for the business, and I'd just as soon the Canadian government didn't spend money to promote a product that some countries are going to question our stand on.

ALISON MYERS (REPORTER): Strahl has also worked with asbestos, and now has cancer as a result. He got it from grinding brake shoes, the same work that led to the death of Karen Hewitt's husband.

CHUCK STRAHL (AGRICULTURE MINISTER): I always think the heroes in this are people who are, you know, truly struggling with it, either with mesothelioma, with a cancer, or with asbestosis and other problems. Those folks and the people around them are truly heroes. And I'm right now... I mean I'm particularly blessed. You know, I'm feeling fine. I'm able to work. You know, if I can inspire somebody, I guess that's good, but I don't kid myself. The folks that should be honoured are the ones that are slugging it out and facing tough problems. (Wind chimes)

ALISON MYERS (REPORTER): A breeze from the lake makes the wind chimes sing in this gazebo.

KAREN HEWITT (SPELL) (WIDOW OF GLEN HEWITT (SPELL)): The gazebo is probably the reason I will never sell this house.

ALISON MYERS (REPORTER): When Karen Hewitt wants to remember her husband, she goes to this place that he built for her. It's here that she thinks of her children.

KAREN HEWITT (SPELL) (WIDOW OF GLEN HEWITT (SPELL)): I... I'm sad about all the things that their dad could have still taught them, and that they're without him and they're so young still. And I'm the only one that they have left, so they worry about me all the time. But no, I worry about them constantly, because I'm not sure if either one of them actually understand what they're going through. But they're survivors. We're all survivors. (Wind chimes)

ALISON MYERS (REPORTER): For The House, I'm Alison Myers in Williams Lake, British Columbia.

KATHERINE CANTY (HOST): For more on our series "Dying for a Job", please tune in later, at six o'clock, to The World This Weekend. David McKie will wrap up the series with a portrait of a B.C. mental health worker who was stabbed to death last year after leaving his office.

*** POSTED MAY 2, 2006 ***