University of Toronto appoints Quebec scientist who did not support banning asbestos to head asbestos panel

Sun, Feb 4, 2018


Kathleen Ruff,

The University of Toronto has appointed “an expert panel to review the way materials containing asbestos are handled across its campuses.”

The university was criticized for failing to protect students, faculty and staff from asbestos when renovations and asbestos removal activities were begun in the Medical Sciences Building in November 2016. Students and professors reported that for several weeks they noticed unusual amounts of white dust in labs where they were working. When tests were carried out, the dust contained levels of asbestos higher than allowed under occupational safety regulations.

Faculty and students demanded that a task force examine the way the university handled the asbestos exposure situation, why the university failed to immediately warn students, faculty and staff of the asbestos hazard and prevent any further exposure.

One year later, the university had not responded to the request. Therefore, a broad coalition of employee and student groups, whose members were impacted by the asbestos abatement breaches, announced that it would hold a public meeting on January 31, 2018 to “Seek Transparency on Serious Asbestos Exposure” and to discuss how these failures occurred and what questions remain outstanding.

On February 2, 2018, the university announced the appointment of a three-member panel, chaired by epidemiologist Jack Siemiatycki, a professor of social and preventive medicine at École de santé publique de l’Université de Montréal (ESPUM), “to examine and evaluate U of T’s Asbestos Management Program on all three campuses to make recommendations on best practices and to ensure the program complies with regulations.”

Panel chair undecided whether asbestos should be banned

For more than a century it has been known that asbestos causes deadly diseases. The scientific consensus is clear that all forms of asbestos are harmful and that there is no safe level of exposure. The evidence is also extremely clear on how the asbestos industry, using the same tactics as the tobacco industry, has sought to deny or cause doubt about asbestos harm.

In 1999, the Collegium Ramazzini*, an independent scientific organization comprised of 180 internationally renowned experts in the fields of occupational and environmental health, issued a Call for a Global Ban on Asbestos. In an article, Should Canadian health care professionals support the call for a worldwide ban on asbestos? published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2001, Prof. Siemiatycki responded to the Collegium’s call, stating that he was unable to decide whether to support it. He raised doubt about whether asbestos should be banned, stating that the health effects of asbestos are in dispute, that the scientific evidence is not clear, that the scientific community is divided, that substitute products might be more harmful and that, since asbestos was mostly being marketed to developing countries, it “smacks of paternalism” to call for a global ban.

As Canada’s Minister of Science has stated, “There is irrefutable evidence that has led us to take concrete action to ban asbestos.” Over the past decade and longer, trade unions, health organisations, health professionals and asbestos victims in developing countries have appealed, particularly to health professionals in Quebec, where the global asbestos lobby organisation is located and has had much influence, to support the call for a global ban on asbestos. The Quebec Medical Association, the Quebec Cancer Society, the Quebec Public Health Association, leading health experts in Quebec have supported this call for a global ban on asbestos with the resulting end to Quebec’s export of asbestos.

Prof. Siemiatycki still, it appears, does not support banning asbestos. He has not retracted his article questioning the need to ban asbestos and it seems still has doubts as to whether low levels of exposure to asbestos are harmful.

Asbestos continues to be the biggest cause of occupational deaths in Canada

The University of Toronto has appointed its asbestos panel in response to the lack of confidence that faculty, students and staff have expressed regarding how the university mishandled the asbestos removal work on campus.

The question arises as to why the university did not select one of the many health professionals who have a track record of speaking out clearly on the seriousness of the hazards posed by asbestos and credibility in working to protect people from asbestos harm. Instead, the university has appointed a scientist who does not, it seems, support the overwhelming scientific consensus that asbestos should be banned and that there is no safe exposure level.

The other two members of the panel are Associate Professor Andrea Sass-Kortsak and Roland Hosein, an adjunct professor, both in the university’s division of occupational and environmental health. Hosein is also the former vice-president of environment, health and safety at General Electric Canada Company Inc.

In an investigative article in the Toronto Star, Lethal Legacy, Bob DeMatteo, an occupational health researcher and former director of health and safety with the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, criticized a report written by Hosein on the link between eight carcinogens used at the General Electric plant in Peterborough and cancer deaths. De Matteo stated that it was “critically misleading to report that there was no association between lung cancers and exposures to carcinogens selected, without also indicating that the sample size made it impossible to detect a real risk if it was there.”

 Dr. Noel Kerin, who works for the Ministry of Labour-funded Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers and conducted assessments of Peterborough workers with cancer in 2004, also criticized the report, stating: “All I can say is it is no longer accepted that you do published science when you’re being paid by one side and the outcome of that science reflects on the future of your boss.”

*Disclosure: I am an honorary Fellow of the Collegium Ramazzini

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