Sisters Leah Nielsen and Stacey Cattran want answers after loosing their father to malignant mesothelioma
“We’re asking for a public inquiry on asbestos.” Leah Nielsen and Stacy Cattran lost their father Bill Coulbeck, felled by (malignant) mesothelioma after years of exposure in Sarnia to the killer dust. Four years after his death, the two sisters want to know how many other deaths have been caused by asbestos, and how many lives could have been saved by banning its use.
“Like the Krever Commission inquiry on the contaminated blood scandal of the ’90s, or like the Walkerton Public Inquiry – seven avoidable deaths due to contaminated water,” Cattran says, from Guelph. “Hundreds of people in Ontario alone have lost their lives due to illnesses related to asbestos,” emphasizes her sister Nielsen from Utah. “In Walkerton, seven people died due to E. coli and a provincial inquiry was launched.” The two sisters are asking for a ban on the extraction and utilization of asbestos and chrysotile (white asbestos) in Canada. And they’re not seeking justice for their families and Canadian victims only. “Seeing a father die in that way is a horrible experience,” Cattran continues. “And it pains me to know that today Canadian asbestos is exported to countries lacking job safety and where public health is worse than ours. I don’t think that’s ethical.”
Cattran from Guelph, and Leah from Utah, – cofounders of Canadian Voices of Asbestos Victims – were moved when they learned of the historic verdict in the Eternit case in Italy. They hope to experience a similar situation here too.
“Canada is behind on asbestos regulations,” Cattran comments. “In Italy, Eternit’s Swiss owner was condemned in February to 16 years and has to pay millions of Euros in compensation. He appealed and didn’t go to jail, but it’s a start.” The situation in Canada is different, where “instead of recognizing the responsibility of the asbestos millionaires,” she says, “we finance them.”
Bill is a 72-year-old retired electrician. He was exposed to on-the-job asbestos during the ’60s and ’70s, in Sarnia and Kincardine.
“He didn’t work in a mine, he worked in buildings where he was exposed. Even a colleague of my father’s got sick.” Nielsen says he didn’t display all the typical symptoms of pulmonary cancer caused by asbestos dust, such as laboured breathing or coughing. He had shoulder pain so he went to various specialists.
“At the end,” she recalls, “it was the physiotherapist who realized it wasn’t a problem in the shoulder, but in the lungs.” The diagnosis was correct, but the mesothelioma was already at an advanced stage. “The mesothelioma was diagnosed only two months before his death. There was nothing that could be done, he already had two of his ribs eroded, one of his lungs was full of fluid.” His final wish was to die at home, beside family members. Nielsen too, from Utah, left her job and family to be near. “This Saturday, May 12,” she recalls, “is the anniversary of the passing of my father.” The two sisters have never asked for compensation or taken recourse to justice. “But what we are doing,” Nielsen emphasizes, “is to spread information on the problem, ask Canada to close asbestos mines forever, and stop exporting it abroad.” A national registry of buildings and old houses containing asbestos is needed, she adds, as a precaution before renovation work is begun. “Workers should know ahead of time to be able to take all the necessary precautions.”
Last year Cattran and Nielsen organized the first Walk to Remember Victims of Asbestos in Sarnia.
“At first we wanted to do something,” they explain, “but didn’t know what. Then the support of Prime Minister Harper for the asbestos industry in Quebec convinced us to organize. It was like a slap in the face for asbestos victims.” Nielsen feels the Conservative government continues to support the sector. “We know that some Conservative MPs are convinced of the dangers of asbestos, but no one has had the courage to express themselves loudly against the Prime Minister. I don’t think the impact of the quarry closing would be disastrous in Canada, it involves 200 to 300 jobs. And I’d feel sorry for them. But if you’ve seen a person suffocate to death because of mesothelioma, you’d know it’s the right thing to do.” This year again, the march will be held in Sarnia, on September 29, at Dow People Place in Centennial Park, at the Victims of Chemical Valley Memorial.
By Concita Minutola, May 11, 2012