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Holding My Breath

I first became aware of asbestos when I was living in Winnipeg, Manitoba back in the 1980s. An investigative reporter wrote a series of articles based on research done by Dr. Francis Konopasek, a physics professor at the University of Manitoba who discovered that asbestos had made its way into the drinking water via the cement water pipes. The asbestos laden pipe is not unique to Manitoba, it is found in the water systems of cities throughout North America. I was sufficiently freaked to switch to bottled water. I’m back on tap water in Van, but have no idea what the pipes are made of or if they test for asbestos here.

Last night I watched a report on asbestos by CBC reporter, Ioanna Roumeliotis on The National. Asbestos, commonly used in a variety of construction materials up to the late 1980s, is still to be found in the insulation of thousands of public buildings across the country. A former food plant inspector who was exposed to the deadly fibre and contracted the rare and fatal form of cancer linked to it, is calling for a national registry. The province of Quebec has a list, but won’t make it public. Course they have asbestos mines there. With demand for asbestos decreasing in the developed world, Quebec and our federal government are flogging the stuff to unsuspecting developing countries.

Asbestos is a mineral, which only poses a problem when it is cut into and exposed, then its tiny fibres can easily be sucked into your lungs. For example, during renovations, like the ones they’re doing on my building right now. And yes, they have found asbestos.

The asbestos in my building is in the drywall, which they have to cut into in order to install new windows and sliding doors. WorkSafe BC has stringent guidelines for the removal of asbestos, but everything I read focuses on the worker and not the residents who are living there. The notice that I got said it was “moderate risk” and that there was no “appreciable” risk to residents. Naturally it’s the adjectives that worry me. When I spoke to a field agent at WorkSafe, he was very helpful, pointing me to the various publications and specific clauses to read. He told me to request a Notice of Project for Asbestos removal from the contractor, which they have to file and post in the building, and would outline the procedures the company would undertake. I did that, but again, the emphasis is on worker safety. They wear haz mat suits and respirator masks while we huddle inside holding our breath. Sure they tape up our suites from the inside before working. And they will wet down the drywall to minimize dust and will use a special vacuum to clean up after themselves. But any slip-ups can have deadly consequences. The WorkSafe field agents don’t check up on every site.

The work has already begun. They are only required to cordon off an area within ten feet of where they’re working. But on a windy day, what if someone happened to walk by or opened a window and some of the fibres floated in? You wouldn’t even know it until you got sick.

The work on my suite is scheduled towards the end of the month. Shopping for a mask and haz mat suit now.

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