If people think about asbestos, they might think that exposures are over once the asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) have been successfully and safely removed from the environment they were being used in.
Unfortunately, that’s just not the case. Asbestos exposures can still happen to workers after abatement…and they can also happen to members of the general public. How or where could this be happening?
The answer to that question is this: asbestos exposures can still happen at your local landfill.
In Ontario, and likely in many other jurisdictions, there are regulatory requirements on how ACMs must be disposed of in landfills. In Ontario, those regulatory requirements are outline in the Environmental Protection Act’s General Waste Management Regulation.
Generally speaking, once ACMs arrive at the local landfill, this is what happens:
- A hole is dug in an “designated” location.
- The ACMs are put in the hole.
- The hole is covered with at least 125cm of “cover” materials.
That “cover” material can be other garbage or soil.
This process was set out in Ontario Regulation 347 in 1990 and that process has not been altered since.
In order to see why this is problematic, it’s important to understand the context of the day. In the late 1980s, people were becoming more aware of asbestos-related diseases, but abatement wasn’t occurring on the scale it is occurring in today. At the time, a few bags of ACMs may have been coming in. The holes would be dutifully dug, the materials placed inside and the hole covered.
Now, most people aren’t as aware of ACMs as they may have been when the legislation had come out. Many people are renovating older homes without ever getting any sense of whether ACMs are present. In those cases, the ACMs are coming to the landfill without any identification and are dumped in with general construction waste.
For buildings where the presence of ACMs is known, abatement tends to occur on a larger scale. Recently, massive abatement occurred in a Northern Ontario municipality in all of the stores of a particular retail chain. Those stores were built when ACMs were commonly used in construction. The local landfill received truckloads of ACMs. The process set out in legislation does not work well with large amounts of ACM waste.
Those bags, which are often buried in the landfill mass, resurface all the time. They resurface because of gas buildup in the landfill mounds. As garbage is degraded by microorganisms, they produce what is commonly referred to as landfill gas – a mix of methane and carbon dioxide. That gas takes up more space than the materials that it came from and “pushes” other materials around. Methane gas can explode if it’s heated, and heat is a natural by-product of garbage decomposition. Thankfully, this doesn’t occur as often as it used to because most landfills have systems in place to capture those landfill gases. However, they don’t capture all of it all the time.
What that means is that even in the best circumstances, some of those bags will move up to the surface over time. And in bad circumstances, those bags will move up because of a small explosion. Either way, the bags are now no longer buried. And it’s also very likely that those bags are no longer intact – because of the movement, because of the explosion, because they’ve been driving over by large machinery.
The end result is that ACMs are now exposed to the air. Landfill workers are driving heavy machinery over it, which means they’ve got it on the heavy machines, and potentially on their clothes and in their lungs. If they’re driving over it, they’re also disturbing whatever materials are present and already exposed. They would be exposing themselves when they’re washing their machines and if they’re not removing their outer layer of clothes, they’re also bringing it home in their cars and on their persons.
The pictures on this page were taken in the last 2 years in an Ontario landfill.
That’s right. Here. In Canada. In Ontario.
This has to end. We need better ways to deal with these products, better ways to track them and resources made available to our fellow Canadians who develop asbestos-related diseases. But more than this, we need to STOP using aIt’s time. Help us. Make a Difference. Ban Asbestos, Canada, Now!