Killer buildings

Published April 1, 2012

Asbestos in Canadian public buildings is exposing children, the elderly and those in hospital to a carcinogenic material.
Photo: Dewitt and Ilya Zlatyev

Once considered a miracle mineral for its cheap fire- and heat-proofing properties, asbestos has been used in everything from smelting gloves and aprons to acoustic tiles. It found its way into many Canadian public and private buildings from the 1930s to the early 1980s. And while Canada has regulations to protect those working in asbestos mining and the manufacturing of asbestos products, asbestos still lurks in the walls, roofs, floors and heating systems of schools, hospitals and older homes.

The most vulnerable Canadians-including children, the elderly and the hospitalized-have been and continue to be exposed. Not only is asbestos-related illness on the rise in Canada, much of it is diagnosed decades after the period of main contact, making it difficult or even impossible to treat.

Now, one Canadian affected by occupational asbestos exposure is choosing to fight back. In Saskatoon, Howard Willems, 59, has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a lethal malignancy of the lining of the chest wall, which can invade the lungs and is caused by long-term asbestos exposure. In fact, 80 per cent of mesothelioma patients have worked with asbestos for extended periods of time. The invasive disease has already cost Willems his right lung and is now attacking his left.

Willems spent three decades as a federal inspector overseeing repairs in old, asbestos-ridden food-processing plants. “No one warned us that there was a potential hazard with asbestos or told us to wear a HEPA filter mask or even a simple face mask,” he says. “There was no labelling or signage about asbestos, yet the danger had been known to the industry since the 1960s.”

Now Willems is lobbying Ottawa and his provincial government to set up registries of buildings in which people may still be exposed to this deadly fibre. To read Willems’s open letter to Conservative MPs, go to and under Health and Safety click on “Open letter.”

“I’ve had zero response from my letter to federal MPs, but the provincial government was receptive to my presentation on a registry,” Willems told the Anglican Journal.

According to Willems, the feds have taken the party line that Canada’s chrysotile asbestos is relatively safe. “That safety claim has now been refuted by major scientists from all over the world,” he says, adding that, hypocritically, Ottawa has removed 1,000 metric tonnes of asbestos from the parliament and other federal buildings.

In Quebec, environmentalist Daniel Green of the Society to Vanquish Pollution has compiled a list of almost 300 public buildings harbouring the toxic fibre. He alleges that the government of Quebec has an unreleased list of 1,550 affected buildings. For a list of federal buildings that still contain asbestos, go to


  • Diana Swift

    Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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