03/23/2012 06:54 EDT | Updated 05/23/2012 05:12 EDT

North's on-job carcinogen limits weakest in Canada

Working environments in Canada’s isolated Arctic are "an embarrassment" when it comes to the amounts of carcinogens labourers can be exposed to, a federal toxicology expert says.

Outdated limits on cancer-causing agents — unchanged since the 1980s — allow labourers in the three territories to be exposed to doses many times higher than the rest of the country.

"It’s kind of an embarrassment,” said Bob Whiting, a technical specialist with the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, a Crown corporation.

Amid forecasts of an economic boom that promises to expand the North’s labour market, health and safety officials for Yukon, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories are moving to toughen the standards for cancer-causing agents in workplaces.

Concentration maximums for most carcinogens stand between five and 500 times the limits set by other provinces, according to data from the B.C.-based research initiative CAREX Canada.

"We're a good 20 years behind on our occupational exposure limits," said Kurt Dieckmann, Yukon’s director of occupational health and safety. "So we're really trying to do more work to bring them in line."

Dieckmann and his counterpart for Nunavut and the Northwest Territories are meeting for talks this month on how to stiffen carcinogen exposure legislation.

'Always lagging'

But getting those updates approved by stakeholders and legislators could take years. And even after the new limits become official, they could yet again be behind the latest standards, Dieckmann said.

"It’s entirely possible that by the time we go through that process, they might change one or two of the limits, or there might be new chemicals added that we haven’t addressed,” he said.

The territories’ standards are far weaker than the Canada Labour Code for most of the highest-risk Group 1 carcinogens.

For example:

- Oil and gas extractors in the northern territories, who may risk exposure to butadiene vapours, can work in concentration levels of 1,000 parts per million of the industrial chemical. That’s 500 times higher than the limit of two parts per million allowed in all other provinces, as well as under the Canada Labour Code.

- Concentrations of ethylene oxide, which is commonly used to sterilize hospital equipment, as well as benzene, which can be used as an industrial solvent, can be 20 times higher than the Canada Labour Code restrictions.

"The concern is the numbers are always lagging," said Whiting.

Whiting said most other provinces tend to base their occupational exposure limits on the Canada Labour Code, which oversees federal employees in sectors such as banks, air, rail and telecommunications.

Arctic lacks manufacturing base: official

The federal rules are regarded as the most rigid, and are based on U.S. threshold levels set by the American Conference of Industrial Hygienists.

While she agrees the legislation should be updated, Judy Kainz, the chief safety officer with the workers’ safety commissions for Nunavut and Northwest Territories, said the Arctic lacks the kind of manufacturing base that might cause anxieties about workplace cancer elsewhere.

“We don’t have exposure to things we’d think you’d be exposed to in some of the southern provinces,” she reasoned.

Whiting said that may be true in a practical sense.

"But nonetheless, the principal is there. Updating [the exposure limits] is the proper thing to do."

Dr. Isaac Sobol, the chief medical officer for Nunavut from 2004 until last year, said workplace carcinogens generally haven’t been a big public concern in the North.

"But if the regulations are outdated or out of sync with other jurisdictions in Canada, that doesn’t bode well for the workers who are exposed,” he said.

Sobol, who also sat on an advisory council for the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, noted that a burgeoning mining industry is also starting in Nunavut, as is oil exploration.

That kind of work has been linked to various cancers due to risk of inhaling carcinogenic dusts such as silica or diesel fumes.

Update rules before economic boom

All the more reason to speed up the approval process for stricter exposure limits, said Lewis Rifkind, the mining co-ordinator for the Yukon Conservation Society environmental group.

“Get those regulations in now so when the industry does set up shop in the North, they know what to expect,” Rifkind said, adding that waste-burning on mining campsites could further add to toxins in the air.

"The worst thing that could happen is, theoretically, a worker could get sick and there would be legal situations, and nobody wants that.”

The problem is the northern territories lack the technical expertise to keep up with constantly changing evidence suggesting workers should be better protected from carcinogens, Dieckmann said.

“We're very aware that we are not in line with the latest science, but doing regular updates on our regulations is more challenging than in larger jurisdictions,” he said.

Instead, the northern territories rely on local companies to voluntarily comply with the stricter standards used elsewhere, even if the standards aren’t enforceable.

So far, all are in compliance with best practices in Yukon, Dieckmann said, but prosecution can be tricky if provincial inspectors can’t punish companies in compliance with local standards.

“If it’s specified you have to meet this, we can’t order you to meet something else,” he said. “We want to update the regulations to the higher standard where they’re enforceable.”

One way or another, Whiting said, businesses have to weigh health effects against economics, as adapting a factory to handle new exposure limits may require retrofitting such as new ventilation.

“It might cost a company a lot of money to make those changes, so they want to know if there’s going to be a significant health benefit,” he said. “Can you prove that? And if so, they’d better abide.”

This article is the third in a three-part series about cancer-causing agents in the workplace.