11/13/2012 01:06 EST | Updated 01/13/2013 05:12 EST

Saskatchewan creates public asbestos registry for government buildings

REGINA - Saskatchewan is making lists available to the public of government buildings that contain asbestos — a move that is believed to be a first for a Canadian province.

But the family of a man who died from an asbestos-related cancer says the registry may not go far enough.

Workplace Safety Minister Don Morgan said Tuesday that the province will create an asbestos information website.

"What we would like to do ... is take every step we can to have a greater amount of public knowledge, public understanding and ensure that contractors or people that are working in areas where asbestos is located know about it and know the steps that they need to take," he said.

It's a change in position from earlier this month when Morgan said officials believed a registry could create a false sense of security or a fear factor because the public might not understand the risk.

Morgan said Tuesday that the list could have been obtained through a Freedom of Information request so it should be public too.

"I want to make it clear by providing that information, that does not necessarily remove the asbestos or make the buildings any safer," he said.

"What we know is that asbestos is safe as long as it remains undisturbed and encapsulated."

Asbestos is typically found in building materials such as insulation. It is not considered harmful if undisturbed, but renovations or construction work stirs up hazardous fibres that can be inhaled.

Morgan said the best approach is to assume all buildings constructed before 1980 contain asbestos. Some buildings constructed before asbestos was used may have had it added during renovations or repairs.

The minister said about 80 per cent of provincial buildings are likely to have asbestos.

Buildings on the Saskatchewan Asbestos Register include the provincial legislature, many court houses and equipment storage buildings.

The registry follows the death last week of Howard Willems, a former building inspector, who died from mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that comes from inhaling asbestos fibres.

Willems had argued that people should know if they're going into buildings that have asbestos — especially if construction is being done. He said he would have taken steps to protect himself had he known there was asbestos in the buildings he inspected.

His relatives said the registry is a start, but they will lobby for more.

"It's a good first step, but that's really all it is, it's a first step," said Willems's stepson Jesse Todd.

"If you read what's on their website, they're saying that there will be no list for schools or hospitals or for health region buildings. It will be voluntary information submitted by these people and a voluntary program is just not going to work.

"We need to have a mandatory program where all health regions and school districts have to submit information about buildings containing asbestos."

Earlier this month, the Opposition NDP introduced a private member's bill in the Saskatchewan legislature that would require details about asbestos containment in public buildings be listed online. The bill, which the NDP suggests be called Howard's Law, has had a second reading in the assembly.

Todd said his stepfather wanted parents to know if their children's schools have asbestos, especially if renovations are being done.

"It's a pretty scary thought you know, to think of how many kids could be exposed and the future consequences."