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, estimated the lifetime cost of newly diagnosed cases of mesothelioma and lung cancer due to work-related asbestos exposures from calendar year 2011. The estimates included second-hand or “para-occupational” exposures (e.g. a family member’s exposure to fibres brought home on work clothing or gear).
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. One powerfully written article citing the study, penned by Tavia Grant of the Globe and Mail, was key in drawing more media attention.
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 in 2016 while the Government of Canada was planning an announcement to ban the import of asbestos and asbestos-containing products in 2018.
Asbestos is the top cause of occupational deaths in Canada, and many organizations have been pressing the Canadian government to act, says Tompa.
In addition to large national 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 drew attention to the study in their own publications. The study, published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine Journal, reached the top fifth percentile of all research outputs ever tracked by Altmetric, a comprehensive online search and tracking engine that measures the attention a journal article receives around the world in public and scholarly spheres.
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 its regulatory impact analysis statement, which is 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, conducted in partnership with the Occupational Cancer Research Centre and funded by the Canadian Cancer Society, estimated the cost of newly diagnosed cases of mesothelioma and lung cancer due to work-related asbestos exposures from calendar year 2011. In that year, there were 427 cases of mesothelioma and 1,904 cases of lung cancer that were newly diagnosed and attributable to work-related asbestos exposure.
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.