11/01/2012 03:00 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

NDP, dying man want asbestos registry for public buildings in Saskatchewan

REGINA - A Saskatchewan man who is dying from an asbestos-related cancer is urging the province to make lists of public buildings that contain asbestos available to everyone.

Howard Willems worked as a building inspector for 31 years and now has mesothelioma, a very rare form of cancer that comes from inhaling asbestos fibres. Willems says people should know if they're going into buildings that have asbestos — especially if construction work is being done.

"I think everyone has the right to know when they enter a building that it is safe and if there's asbestos in there, at what state is it at because not knowing is the biggest thing," Willems said in a phone interview from Saskatoon.

"If you know and you go into a building and they say, 'Yes there's asbestos here, but it's all contained,' and then you go in and you see construction you can ask the appropriate questions — how are things being controlled so that during construction the people who come in for work there or the general public are safe."

Asbestos was used in a lot of building materials, such as insulation and roofing, until the late 1970s. It is not considered harmful if undisturbed. But construction work stirs up hazardous fibres that can be inhaled.

"The buildings that I went into were not marked and the insulating material had no warning label there was asbestos," Willems said with a halting breath.

Willems spoke out as 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.

New Democrat Cam Broten said people could then take steps to protect themselves.

"If a parent knew that renovations were happening at the school where their child was attending, it allows them to ask are the right steps being taken, is the dust being contained, what precautions do they have," said Broten.

"I know we always should assume that asbestos is present and we should act that way, but having the specific information allows us to be even more careful."

Labour Relations and Workplace Safety Don Morgan said he has asked officials to review the bill. However, he also said officials believe the best approach is to assume all buildings built prior to 1980 contain asbestos.

"The concern that they have with maintaining a central registry is it may create a false sense of security," said Morgan.

"The assumption should be there that whenever dealing with a building that there is asbestos there and that appropriate steps be taken. That people ought not rely on a registry that may be incomplete or may not have accurate information."

Morgan also said there is a "fear factor" such lists could create because the public may not understand the risk. He pointed out that asbestos is not a health risk when "encapsulated."

Willems said he would have taken different steps to protect himself had he known there was asbestos in the buildings he inspected.

"It's not fear-mongering at all. It's education people so that they know," he said.

The World Health Organization estimates that 107,000 people die globally each year from asbestos-related disease.

Willems was diagnosed with mesothelioma two years ago. He isn't giving up, but the situation looks grim.

"After all the treatments and surgeries, the chemo has failed to keep things in control. We're off chemo now and just working with homeopathic medicines and prayers. But my strength, especially in the last three months, has deteriorated quite drastically," he said.

"The disease is progressing at a rate much, much faster than what we had originally anticipated."