It was the kind of day most students dream about: no sooner had they arrived at school than they were turned away. Authorities at Toronto’s Harbord Collegiate locked the front door, sending 1,100 pupils into the streets, or into nearby pool halls for that matter—anywhere but back into corridors and classrooms made unsafe by high levels of asbestos fibres in the air. The week-long school closure in April, 1980, sparked a wave of concern that sent inspectors poking into school air vents across Canada. A year and a half later, some headway has been made in ridding schools of asbestos contamination, but a further problem has yet to be tackled: asbestos everywhere else.
The dangers of working with asbestos have been well known for some time. But the Harbord Collegiate scare dramatized the widespread dimension of the problem: anyone could develop the deadly lung diseases associated with asbestos-lung cancer, asbestosis and
mesothelioma—simply by breathing asbestos fibres in the air. Since asbestos was used throughout the ’50s and ’60s as an insulator, fireproofer, soundproofer and even as a decorative paint, the dangers of it flaking and crumbling seemed limitless. Even small doses of asbestos are considered harmful.
No one knows what harm, if any, has been done to children exposed to flaking asbestos in the schools. It will be many years before the full effects are known. Yet, in contrast to their slow pace in tightening up regulations on asbestos levels in the workplace, provincial governments wasted no time coming up with funds to clean up the schools. Ontario has already spent more than $15 million and anticipates spending another $13 million this fall and next year; Nova Scotia spent $1.3 million in 23 schools; British Columbia paid an estimated $2 million in 20 schools.
These programs have basically brought asbestos under control, according to provincial education ministries. But Colin Lambert, health and safety officer for the Canadian Union of Public Employees, estimates that about half of
Ontario’s school boards didn’t do a thorough job and that the cleanups in other provinces were even less adequate. The school blitz may have created a further problem: much of it was carried out by contractors who took few safety precautions. According to Linda Jolley, health and safety consultant to the Ontario Federation of Labour, many of the workers involvedincluding students hired as summer help—were exposed to far more asbestos than they ever would have been in the classroom.
Beyond the cleanup in the schools lies the challenge of tracking down asbestos everywhere else. That may turn out to be an enormous task. No sooner was the school inspection under way than asbestos was found crumbling on the rafters of the Saskatoon arena. In New Brunswick, the government closed its main provincial office building for two days for fear that asbestos might be flaking. In Toronto, a royal commission studying the dangers of asbestos found itself meeting in a room sprayed with asbestos. Toronto’s Health Advocacy Unit calculated that asbestos could have been used in any of the 163,000 buildings—including offices, schools, hospitals and homes—constructed or renovated in the city between 1945 and 1973. The city has begun a slow inspection process but it doesn’t have the authority to force building owners to remove asbestos. “We can close up a building for old-fashioned bacterial diseases or dirty toilets, but in the whole range of newfangled products, we just don’t have the power,” says unit coordinator Gerry Caplan. Robert Sass, associate deputy labor minister for Saskatchewan, one of the first provinces to clean up its schools, says that although he has no idea how widely asbestos was used in the province, “it would be folly not to consider it a problem needing immediate attention. We’ve either got to cover it up or get rid of it.”
For some, the attention now being paid to asbestos comes too late. The Asbestos Victims of Ontario, a group of 167 disabled former asbestos workers and 64 widows, knows the dangers all too well. Edward Cauchi, a 54-year-old former asbestos worker at the JohnsManville Canada Inc. plant in Scarborough, Ont., has been disabled for the past five years with a case of asbestosis so severe that he has difficulty walking up a flight of stairs. Cauchi feels bitter that the dangers of asbestos did not command this kind of official concern years ago when it could have helped him and other workers. “This scare only happened because schoolteachers were involved, and they are in a different bracket,” he says. “For the guy with the lunch pail, this has been going on for years.”
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