Labour leaders are expressing grave concerns about dozens of city roads revealed by the Sun to contain toxic asbestos.
And while city officials claim there is no public danger, they say they will be doing more safety testing to ensure the dangerous material isn't released into the air during construction.
A report prepared for the city and obtained by the Sun measured core samples from 34 roads in March and found the majority, including some major roads, contained levels of asbestos, a now-banned mineral that was commonly used in asphalt prior to 1985 and has been linked to serious health risks if inhaled.
With the city continuing its practice of using recycled asphalt containing asbestos when it prepares new material for road surfacing, a steady chorus of those demanding answers is beginning to arise from both union leaders and elected officials.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said asbestos has caused more workplace fatalities than any other contaminant -- and he's stunned at the city's cavalier attitude toward its continued use of recycled asphalt and lack of safety measures employed.
"It's simply unconscionable if the city doesn't take greater efforts to take this stuff out of circulation," he said.
"I can't understand why the bureaucrats in Calgary city hall are not taking this situation more seriously."
"The bottom line is asbestos is a killer and this is a public health and safety issue that needs to be addressed."
McGowan said some 80 deaths in Alberta last year were officially attributed to asbestos, which can cause a number of severe lung problems, including scarring and cancer, many of which aren't diagnosed for years.
He suggested Calgary should follow Toronto's lead and insist that road workers milling asbestos-laden streets wear protective hazardous material suits, wet down asphalt to keep dust to a minimum and warn nearby residents the toxic substance could be airborne.
The president of Calgary's outside workers, Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 37 boss Kevin Galley, said he will be calling on the city to see any reports it has done related to asbestos and wants to work with officials to ensure those who may be exposed to the material won't have their health threatened.
"What I'm going to do is request copies of any reports they've done and see what we need to do to make sure workers are safe," he said.
"If there are any concerns I'm sure the city will be taking steps to address them."
Calgary's director of roads, Mac Logan, said the city began testing for asbestos after one of its contractors, Volker-Stevin, found traces of asbestos in their laboratory and raised concerns.
But air quality monitoring around sites where roadwork is under way has suggested there is little risk to workers or the public that any dangerous levels of asbestos are likely to be inhaled, he said.
"None of our testing indicates it is airborne -- in fact we're going to go and do some more testing, but so far we haven't seen anything to indicate there's a public health risk here," Logan said, noting there will be air quality testing next week.
"What we're seeing through the research that's being done across North America is when you mill the road it doesn't necessarily release it to become airborne -- it's coated in oil, it's quite heavy and it bonds very well to the oil."
He noted the city can either reuse old asphalt or take it to the landfill but has opted to continue the practice of recycling road material because it's a better option and it's safe.
Logan said the city is also looking at its inventory of roads to determine those built prior to 1985 to better determine which areas may include asbestos in the asphalt.
Earlier this week, Toronto city officials issued warnings to residents that road work was being done in the borough of North York in surfaces that contained trace elements of asbestos.
Due to stringent regulations by Ontario's ministry of labour, any road work being done with asphalt containing asbestos requires workers to wear hazardous material suits, wet down pavement to keep dust under control and recommend the public close doors and windows and avoid the area during construction.
Bill Mason, the City of Toronto's superintendent of technical operations in the Etobicoke-York district, said while they are complying with the legislation that requires safety precautions any time a concentration of more than 0.5% of asbestos is found at a job site, they are hoping the regulations will be softened.
He said air quality testing around road work sites have shown no dangerous levels of asbestos have been generated and there will likely be more samples taken next week.
"The city is being diligent, they're working with the ministry of labour and they have come up with guidelines for the removal of (asbestos) in urban centres," Mason said.
"We're following those guidelines despite the fact we have done air quality and air monitoring on trials last year after this came to light that showed there wasn't any asbestos risk."
But with so many doubts about the long-term effects of exposure to asbestos, McGowan said the city should err on the side of caution and ensure workers and the public are safe.
"Asbestos is a killer and it continues to kill even years after the ban," he said.
Asbestos is a mineral fibre that has been used in a variety of construction materials.
Elevated concentrations of airborne asbestos can occur after asbestos-containing materials are disturbed by cutting, sanding or other remodelling activities.
Asbestos poses health risks when fibres are present in the air people breathe.
How exposure to asbestos can affect you depends on:
- The concentration of asbestos fibres in the air around you.
-How long the exposure to asbestos fibres has lasted.
- How often you were exposed.
- The size of the asbestos fibres inhaled.
- The amount of time since the initial exposure.
Calgary Sun, Page 4, Sat July 19 2008
Byline: Shawn Logan