What research can do: IWH estimate of societal costs helps Ottawa make case for asbestos ban

Federal government incorporates cost findings in regulatory impact statement related to asbestos ban

Published: July 31, 2018

When the findings were made public in 2016, news of the first study to estimate the costs to society of illnesses associated with work-related asbestos exposures spread rapidly across North America and around the globe. The study, authored by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH), estimated the lifetime cost of newly diagnosed cases in Canada of mesothelioma and lung cancer due to work-related asbestos exposures during a single calendar year.

More than 40 print and online media across North America and more than 50 television stations in the United States reported on or mentioned the research. Journalist Tavia Grant of the Globe and Mail, author of an award-winning series on the health risks of asbestos exposures, wrote an article on the study that was key in drawing more media attention. Safety and labour groups, patient and family support groups, cancer prevention organizations, and other organizations advocating for an asbestos ban around the world also drew attention to the study in their own publications.

The study’s lead author, IWH Senior Scientist Dr. Emile Tompa, was not surprised by the media interest—particularly because the findings were made public while the Government of Canada was considering a ban on the import of asbestos and asbestos-containing products in 2018 (an export ban having already been in place). “Asbestos is the top cause of occupational deaths in Canada, and many organizations have been pressing the Canadian government to act,” says Tompa.

Federal regulatory impact analysis cites study

In January 2018, the Canadian government did, indeed, propose new regulations and related amendments to existing regulations that would prohibit the use, sale, import and export of asbestos and products that contain it, as well as the manufacture of products containing the cancer-causing mineral. The government used the Institute’s study to inform their regulatory impact analysis statement, a required summary accompanying proposed regulations that outlines why government intervention is needed, the cost of the problem to be addressed by the regulation and the anticipated benefits.

Joe Devlin, Keisha Panoff and Michael Chan, economists at Environment and Climate Change Canada, prepared the government analysis. “The IWH study provided us with high-quality evidence on the economic burden of asbestos-related diseases in the Canadian context. It was invaluable to our analysis,” says Devlin.

The IWH research put the cost of newly diagnosed cases of mesothelioma and lung cancer due to work-related asbestos exposures from calendar year 2011 at $2.35 billion. In that year, 427 cases of mesothelioma and 1,904 cases of lung cancer were newly diagnosed and attributable to work-related asbestos exposures.

“Little information has been available on the magnitudes of health and productivity losses from these diseases and their costs to society,” says Tompa. Although it may seem insensitive to put a dollar figure on a person’s health, Tompa stresses that it’s important information for policy decision-makers to support priority setting and for advocacy organizations to push for change.

“The public and government attention to our economic burden study has created opportunities to make a difference in preventing asbestos-related disease,” says Tompa, adding that he expects to be consulted by Environment and Climate Change Canada as the proposed regulation moves forward.

The study was conducted in partnership with the Occupational Cancer Research Centre and funded by the Canadian Cancer Society. It was first published in July 2017 and is freely available as an open access article (doi: 10.1136/oemed-2016-104173).