When Ernie Farris walked past his childhood home in Peterborough, Ont., this summer for the first time in years, he had an alarming thought.
In the late 1940s, as a young teen, he had helped his father unload a truck full of fluffy, white scrap asbestos from the local General Electric factory, spreading it in the family’s attic as cheap insulation.
No masks. No gloves.
The highly concentrated material known to cause cancer sat loose upstairs for decades.
“My mom died [at age 45] with what they called asthma in 1954. I just wonder whether it was asthma, or if there was something related to the asbestos,” said Farris. “We took the bags up there … spread it around. Never knew any different about any hazards.”
A CBC News/Toronto Star investigation has found that from the 1940s until the mid-1970s, General Electric sold off leftover asbestos scrap from its Peterborough factory for pennies a pound, delivering it by truck to potentially hundreds of workers’ homes.
Over the years, thousands of the city’s homes have changed hands. Many current owners are likely unaware of the history of General Electric asbestos being used as insulation — and the company hasn’t stepped in to tell them.
GE doesn’t acknowledge it ever sold what is now widely known to be cancer-causing material. But in recent years, the company has paid to clean up two dozen houses in Peterborough.
And neither the company nor local health officials have alerted the community that GE has a program that pays to remove the toxic waste hidden in walls and attics across the city.
GE denied sale of asbestos
In its heyday in the ’60s and ’70s, General Electric employed some 6,000 workers at its Peterborough factory. But after more than a century of building large machine engines at the site, the plant was shut down in late 2018.
It leaves behind a toxic legacy: PCBs buried on the 21-acre property are leaching into the soil and groundwater and hundreds of workers have won compensation for illnesses stemming from chemical exposures at the plant.
Now the company is grappling with highly concentrated asbestos — used as a fire retardant on metal wires and cables — that wound up in untold numbers of nearby homes.
“Some employees in Peterborough may have taken home surplus asbestos,” GE spokesperson Karissa Boley confirmed this spring. “However GE has since abated much of that material and continues to work with the community when additional asbestos is found.”
The company has paid to clean up two dozen houses, she said.
Keith Riel, a Peterborough city councillor who used to lead the GE workers’ union, believes the company is grossly underestimating the problem.
“Hundreds of homes in Peterborough are insulated, up in their attics, with this loose asbestos,” said Riel. “If they’ve only done a couple of dozen, then that’s just not even the tip of the iceberg.”
The contractor hired by GE to do the asbestos remediation said it believes the number of contaminated homes could be in the hundreds.
But in 2004, when the issue first surfaced publicly through a series of community meetings, GE flatly denied it ever sold off the waste.
“We are unaware of any GE Canada practice allowing or condoning sales or allowing employees to take materials home,” a company spokesperson told the Peterborough Examiner when the issue first surfaced.
GE’s denials infuriated some workers, especially those whose job it was to bag the asbestos with their bare hands and load it onto delivery trucks.
“I was so mad I was almost shaking,” said Jim Dufresne, who spent 42 years with GE and was tasked with recycling the asbestos in the ’60s and ’70s.
“Four or five of us would go up on the roof, open up the bin, and load it into garbage bags or refrigerator boxes and put it in the truck. You didn’t have any protective equipment at all,” he recalled.
“They told us it was just ‘plucking the goose’ … because it’s all white and it’s like feathers.”
John Lewington also recalls the dozens of times he bagged up the scrap asbestos for resale through GE’s salvage yard, where he says the company kept sales records.
“If you bought salvage or asbestos — you bought any scrap — there was a record of it, whether it be steel, whether it was wood, whether it was asbestos,” Lewington said. “If it was delivered, if it was picked up at the gate, there’s still a receipt.”
Dufresne has suffered two bouts of cancer that he suspects were work-related. He previously received workers’ compensation for chronic lung problems as a result of asbestos exposure at the factory.
Back then, he says, no one he knew understood the risks.
But when GE publicly denied ever selling the hazardous material, Dufresne and some of his colleagues began looking for concrete proof. They scoured the local archives and found a 1956 advertisement in GE’s own newspaper that appears to confirm workers had been using GE asbestos in their own homes “for years.”
“You can insulate for 3 cents a pound,” the ad declares. “Installed between the ceiling joists in uninsulated homes, asbestos fluff helps to hold heat in and cold out.”
“They lied about it,” said Dufresne. “It’s a carcinogen if it gets loose. They should be responsible for fixing everybody’s house that they sold it to.”
While asbestos in homes is not hazardous if left undisturbed, residents could be at risk of exposure if they start renovations that break apart the fibrous material behind the walls or in the attic.
The federal government implemented a near-total ban of asbestos in Canada at the end of 2018.
‘Secret’ clean-up program
For the past 15 years, GE has hired environmental health specialists Pinchin Ltd. to oversee abatement of the toxic material, CBC and the Star have further learned.
The company says it has remediated 24 homes in all, three in the past year alone.
But at no point did local health officials or General Electric issue a public advisory to warn other residents of potential contamination from the asbestos. Nor did they advertise that GE has a program to remove the toxic material.
Rather it’s been carried out quietly, the program’s existence spreading by word of mouth.
“[It’s] like a best-kept secret,” said Dr. Rosana Salvaterra, who has served as Peterborough’s medical officer of health since 2008.
“If the program still exists — and this was not something that I was aware of — it’s definitely something we need to make people aware of.”
Back in 2004, her predecessor received calls from some concerned residents, which were passed on to GE. But Salvaterra said she had no clue about the company’s ongoing clean-up effort, nor was she aware that hundreds of homes could remain contaminated
“This is new information for me,” Salvaterra said, when CBC and the Star presented her with evidence of decades’ worth of GE asbestos sales.
“It does beg the question, you know, how many homes are out there and where is the asbestos? Is it still there? And is it well-contained? Or is it actually putting people at risk?”
GE offers 1-800 line
In a statement, GE confirmed its clean-up program continues and that the company is willing to “work with the community and homeowners if additional material is found.”
And for the first time, GE is publicly providing a 1-800 phone number for Peterborough residents who might “believe their homes may have insulation with asbestos-containing material” from the now-shuttered factory.
- GE Canada Environmental Programs Information Line: 1-877-399-9599.
General Electric did not answer questions about what efforts have been made to track down employees who may have taken asbestos home. GE spokesperson Jeff Cay also declined to answer why the company has not used local media or done more community outreach to promote its clean-up efforts.
“They should be advertising it — not this secret kind of thing,” said Riel.
The councillor also said he plans to formally ask health authorities to track down all of the city’s contaminated homes.
“We know that if one minute amount of [asbestos] gets into somebody’s lungs it can cause asbestosis. So it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “It’s a health issue. If they have a program out there, then it should be known.”
High concentration of asbestos
Historically, asbestos was widely used in household building materials, until public awareness of its health hazards saw it slowly phased out.
The material from GE’s Peterborough factory is unique for both its appearance and its high concentration of asbestos; it is made up of 70 per cent chrysotile asbestos — far higher than other commercial insulations that had only three to six per cent asbestos content.
A simple laboratory test can identify GE’s product.
The cost of asbestos removal can be steep, ranging from $15,000 for a small attic cleanup to more than $250,000 for a major renovation.
According to Pinchin, specially trained crews must seal off houses, remove barriers, vacuum out the toxic material and then reinsulate and rebuild — all while monitoring air quality.
GE has paid to temporarily relocate affected homeowners in Peterborough, covering all meals and hotels.
Health worries remain
When the issue of GE asbestos first surfaced back in 2004, Ernie Farris was interviewed by the Peterborough Examiner and recounted how he and his father had spread the material in their house at 558 Douglas Ave.
Months later, the company knocked on the door of that house and surprised then-owner Larry Keeley by offering to clean it up.
“I kinda had a good feeling about the company wanting to do that,” Keeley recalled. “GE’s willing to pay for it, so I thought, easy for me to just pack a bag and go down to the Holiday Inn for a three-week vacation; all meals paid and a swimming pool and the whole works.”
Over a period of three weeks, GE sealed off the house and removed all traces of asbestos from the attic and walls.
Keeley then received a detailed report from GE’s vice-president of environment, health and safety that stated: “By completing this work, GE is not making any admissions of any kind.”
When told that Farris’s mother died of asthma-like symptoms in the 1950s while living in the same house, Keeley revealed he himself had developed asthma while living there.
“I’m wondering to what extent there might be a connection between the asbestos in the house and the fact that I developed asthma. I’m left with a question — hadn’t even thought about it until now,” he said.
General Electric operated dozens of factories across Canada and the United States over the years, though many having shut down or relocated in recent years. GE declined to answer whether it offers similar asbestos clean-up programs in other communities.
As a result of the CBC/Star investigation, Peterborough’s medical officer of health says she plans this fall to investigate the matter further and advise citizens about GE’s clean-up program.
“We’ll use our different communication channels to get that information out,” said Salvaterra. “If there are homes out there where there is asbestos that needs to be remediated, those homeowners will get the assistance they need to do that.”