09/05/2012 09:28 EDT | Updated 11/05/2012 05:12 EST

B.C. groups push for better asbestos disease detection

A team at the B.C. Cancer Agency is trying to convince WorksafeBC that lives would be saved if it were to cover the costs of routine CT scans for all workers in the province who have had long-term exposure to asbestos.

New research has shown that X-rays are not nearly as effective as CT scans at detecting lung cancer, for instance.

Many people who worked at an asbestos mine closed 20 years ago in Cassiar, B.C., told CBC they believe they are healthy because their X-rays are clear.

But new research indicates that if the workers are in the high-risk category — due to a history of other lung illnesses, smoking, or exposure to asbestos — they might not learn of life-threatening disease until it’s too late if they depend solely on X-rays for detection.

“We know that exposure to asbestos alone increases the risk of lung cancer by six times, if they smoked that increases 10 times, and together the risk is 60 times,” said Dr. Stephen Lam, a respirologist with the B.C. Cancer Agency.

A CT scan itself costs about $250, but other costs also have to be factored in, including a radiologist to analyze the scan and a physician to review the analysis and deal with the patient.

Lam and some labour unions are among those lobbying WorksafeBC to cover the cost of routine CT scans for asbestos workers.

Union officials say they're tired of attending funerals of workers slowly suffocated to death by mesothelioma, the most deadly of the cancers caused by asbestos.

“By the time you go to the doctor and say, ‘I have a sore back,’ it’s too late,” said Andre Pachon, of the British Columbia Insulation Contractors Association.

WorksafeBC has not yet announced a decision on the request.