The federal government department has banned asbestos use in new construction and renovation projects at buildings it operates — the new policy took effect on April 1.

In February, it was revealed that building products containing the toxic material were still being used in new construction of federal buildings in Canada.

The minister of public services and procurement said Monday the government is now taking steps to end the practice.

“We have heard the concerns expressed by Canadians over the continued use of asbestos. We listened and took action,” wrote Minister of Public Services Judy Foote in an email to CBC. “As of April 1, 2016, PSPC no longer uses asbestos in PSPC new construction and major renovation projects.… Furthermore we are developing an inventory of owned and leased buildings to identify those that contain asbestos.”

The minister said that building registry will be publicly available, online in this coming summer.

Public Services and Procurement Canada, formerly referred to as Public Works, serves as the central purchasing agent and property manager for government departments and operates buildings used by 265,000 federal workers. It’s not clear whether the department’s asbestos ban will extend to the entire government, as some federal property is managed by other departments.

‘Best news we’ve had in many years’

“It basically means that all new federal buildings that are still in the planning stages will be built asbestos free,” said Denis St-Jean, the national health and safety officer at the Public Service Alliance of Canada who attended the meeting.

“For many of our health and safety activists across Canada, this is the best news we’ve had in many years.”

There are several minerals commonly known as asbestos, the federal government’s website notes.

Health and labour groups are calling for a full ban on asbestos use in Canada. The country still imports cement pipes and automotive brake parts containing asbestos.

By contrast, Australia, New Zealand and all 28 members of the European Union have bans in place.

Every year, thousands of Canadians die of asbestos-related diseases, which can include mesothelioma (cancer of the chest lining or abdominal cavity) and lung cancer.

In February, New Democrat MP Sheri Benson called the fibre “the greatest industrial killer the world has ever known.”

‘Clear tone that this is not acceptable’

Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said the new federal policy is a step in the right direction for Canada.

“Asbestos is a carcinogen and given that we’re spending tons money on our infrastructure, if you don’t set a clear tone that this is not acceptable anymore, knowing what we know about asbestos, it would have been really remiss of the government to allow this to continue.”

Yussuff himself was exposed to asbestos during his years working in a General Motors plant.

He said he hopes this policy affects the rules around the billions of dollars of construction projects the federal government is planning to help fund across Canada.

“I think the federal government can say, without any contradiction, ‘We’ll not fund projects that are using asbestos products, as we’re trying to renew our infrastructure.’ I think they can insist on that.”

But Infrastructure Canada said in an email: “The use of asbestos as it relates to health and safety is governed by provincial and territorial standards, which our project proponents are required to meet.”

Public Services and Procurement Canada is also developing a national inventory of both owned and leased buildings containing asbestos.

Hundreds of properties
The department operates hundreds of properties, many containing asbestos.

“Hopefully they’re going to establish a public registry of all Crown-owned buildings across Canada,” said St. Jean.

He said for the past decade, the union has campaigned for such a registry.

Federal government workers — especially those who work in the trades — have long complained they weren’t made aware their workplaces contained asbestos until they had already been exposed.

Yussuff agrees the registry is needed, but said there’s much more the federal government should do.

“There is a big gap though, in terms of their policy which we have to address. The importation of asbestos products in our country is simply unacceptable and the federal government can bring in a comprehensive ban to stop those products from coming into Canada and that has to be part of this.”

David Boyd, an environmental lawyer and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University in B.C., said several federal departments need to be part of new policies concerning asbestos, not just Public Services and Procurement Canada.

“I keep saying to people in Ottawa this isn’t something you can dither about. This is something that has to be done as soon as humanly possible to save lives and to prevent terrible diseases.”