GE Peterborough has disputed promoting asbestos to former staff. Now, it’s quietly eradicating it from their houses

PETERBOROUGH—Ernie Farris was a younger boy within the mid-1940s when his dad introduced house a fridge field filled with shredded gray asbestos from his employer’s scrapyard. Collectively, they lined the attic of their small brick Peterborough house with the insulating materials now recognized to be deadly.

It took one other 60 years for considerations about Normal Electrical Peterborough’s poisonous legacy to air at a collection of group well being clinics, spurring the corporate to inform an area newspaper in 2004 that it had “no proof” of ever promoting scrap asbestos to staff to make use of as house insulation.

However a joint Toronto Star/CBC investigation has discovered that for the previous 15 years, GE has quietly paid to take away the hazardous materials from native homes — after promoting asbestos collected from its store flooring to workers between the 1940s and 1974.

There is no such thing as a report of public outreach concerning the cleanup program by the corporate, which ceased manufacturing at its Peterborough facility in 2018 and is presently decommissioning the location. Nor has there been outreach concerning the chance the manufacturing facility’s industrial waste — which contained a considerably increased asbestos content material than commercially-available insulation merchandise on the time — may very well be in native homes.

In response to detailed questions from the Star/CBC, together with queries about why the corporate has by no means acknowledged it offered asbestos to staff or performed any public outreach, GE spokesperson Jeff Caywood stated the well being and security of workers and the general public is a “high precedence.”

“We’ll proceed to work with the group and householders if extra materials is discovered,” he stated.

GE Peterborough ceased manufacturing last year and the company is now decommissioning the site. GE has quietly paid to remove asbestos from local homes after selling scrap material to employees between 1940s and 1974, according to a Star/CBC investigation.

Thus far, the corporate has paid to take away asbestos from 24 houses. Given the time span over which the waste was offered out of the manufacturing facility, Peterborough metropolis councillor Keith Riel estimates the fabric may very well be in “a whole bunch” of different homes.

“In the event that they’ve solely executed a few dozen, then that’s simply not even the tip of the iceberg,” he stated.


The remediation program is beneficiant and might relieve householders of probably six-figure prices related to large-scale asbestos elimination tasks. Asbestos in houses is just not harmful if undisturbed, and solely accredited professionals ought to take away it. The danger comes when householders are unaware of its location and inadvertently disturb it.

Asbestos publicity could cause mesothelioma, a uncommon and aggressive most cancers of the membrane lining the chest, based on the Worldwide Company for Analysis on Most cancers. It can also trigger cancers of the lung, larynx, and ovary.

“The ethical and moral factor for GE to do could be to place out an actual public well being notification to the folks they offered that stuff to about this hazard, and about how they need to take care of it,” stated Barry Castleman, a U.S.-based environmental guide, who has served as an skilled witness about asbestos dangers in about two-dozen American trials involving GE.

GE’s Peterborough plant was as soon as the corporate’s flagship facility in Canada, using 1000’s of individuals to make a few of the world’s largest motors. In 2016, the Star printed an investigation into the struggle of former workers to obtain compensation for illnesses attributable to publicity to greater than 20 substances now recognized as human carcinogens, used between 1940 and 1980 on the manufacturing facility. This included massive volumes of asbestos used to insulate wire and motor merchandise on the plant — typically as much as 500 lbs. a day.

Normal Electrical has stated the corporate has “all the time adopted one of the best well being and security practices based mostly on one of the best data out there to us on the time.”

Following the Star’s 2016 investigation, the Office Security and Insurance coverage Board re-evaluated 233 beforehand rejected claims for a spread of power and typically terminal sicknesses, overturning 71 of the denials. The identical yr, GE introduced it could shut its Peterborough website resulting from declining international demand for its merchandise.

Former GE Peterborough worker John Lewington looks at old photos from the plant at his Ennismore, Ont. home. Lewington, who was part of the labour gang at the factory, said one of their duties in the 1960s was gathering waste asbestos.

Earlier than the corporate leaves, GE retiree John Lewington stated there’s “a number of stuff they should come good about.”

Lewington began at GE in 1966 as a part of its labour gang tasked with performing the dirtiest jobs within the manufacturing facility. This included gathering waste asbestos, which Lewington and his co-worker Jim Dufresne informed the Star/CBC would then be packed right into a four-tonne truck and offered about 3 times a yr to native householders.

Lewington took over as a clerk within the salvage division in 1974 and stated by that point the manufacturing facility was not promoting scrap asbestos. He stated he has “little doubt” data had been made about staff who did buy it up to now.

“In the event you purchased asbestos or something from salvage, there was a report,” Lewington stated. “Nothing went out the gate until there was a receipt.”

Aileen Hughes’s husband Morris labored at GE for 43 years, and later died of most cancers — which prompted her to spearhead efforts to prepare the 2004 group well being clinics for former staff.

“The primary week that they had the consumption clinic you couldn’t even get standing room, it was so full of folks as a result of everyone puzzled what was occurring, why they had been sick,” she stated.

Whereas Morris had by no means introduced house scrap asbestos to insulate his family house, Hughes knew neighbours who did. So she used the clinics to boost considerations with the manufacturing facility’s broader environmental footprint. In response, GE stated it was “unaware” of ever promoting its waste asbestos and had “no proof” that it had executed so, based on a Could 2004 Peterborough Examiner article.

Dufresne, who labored at GE for 42 years, says he was “virtually shaking” with anger when he learn the article. After scouring native archives, he finally discovered a 1956 GE inside publication promoting the sale of scrap asbestos for three cents a bag.

“That proved they did promote it, after telling everyone they didn’t,” he stated.

A January 1956 ad selling scrap asbestos for home insulation in GE's internal newsletter, the Peterborough Works News.

After the Star/CBC despatched the corporate a not too long ago obtained copy of the publication, a spokesperson stated “some workers in Peterborough could have taken house surplus asbestos.”

Dr. Garry Humphreys, the town’s chief medical officer on the time of the well being clinics, informed the Star/CBC the well being unit subsequently started referring any cellphone calls they obtained concerning the subject to GE for potential remediation. However he stated data weren’t stored on the subject as a result of it “wasn’t in our sphere.”


Town’s public well being unit does have a report of 1 letter from 2005 despatched to an area house owner, recommending that they contact GE about doable asbestos remediation. Present chief medical officer Rosana Salvaterra stated whereas the well being unit is in fixed contact with GE, whose plant occupies eight.four hectares of Peterborough land, she didn’t know the asbestos remediation program was nonetheless working.

“(It’s) like a greatest stored secret,” she stated. “If this system nonetheless exists, and this was not one thing that I used to be conscious of, it’s positively one thing we have to make folks conscious of.”

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This system remains to be lively. GE materials is well identifiable as a result of it’s as much as 70 per cent chrysotile asbestos. Different business compounds beforehand used to insulate houses would often have had between three and 6 per cent asbestos content material. GE employs an environmental engineering consulting agency in Mississauga to check the origin of asbestos samples present in Peterborough houses.

Three householders the Star/CBC spoke to stated they had been proactively contacted by GE concerning the chance the manufacturing facility’s asbestos may be of their home. Two others stated they contacted GE themselves after studying of this system by way of house inspectors.

Ernie Farris, shown as a young boy on the porch of his home in Peterborough. Farris, who, like his father, later worked at the GE plant for 39 years, remembers helping his dad insulate the attic with scrap asbestos.

Farris, 83, now lives simply outdoors Peterborough. After the 2004 group well being clinics, he informed an area newspaper he remembered stuffing the attic of his childhood house with GE’s asbestos. In 2005, the then-owner of the home, Larry Keeley, remembers a lady he believed to be a GE consultant knock on the door.

“She requested if she might are available, and so she seemed round form of furtively,” he remembers. “She got here in and proceeded to inform me that my home had asbestos in it that got here initially from GE.”

After the cleanup, Keeley obtained a letter from Roland Hosein, GE Canada’s former Vice President of Well being and Security.

“That is to tell you that asbestos-containing materials originating from the GE Peterborough manufacturing facility was faraway from the attic of your property,” the letter reads. “By finishing this work, GE is just not making any admissions of any type.”

Farris, who labored at GE for 39 years like his father, stated he thinks it’s good of the corporate to select up the price of remediating native houses, which typically run into the a whole bunch of 1000’s of . However he believes the general public must be made conscious of this system’s existence.

“It provides them a alternative of eradicating the hazard or dwelling with it,” he stated.

Farris stated he’s unaware of any well being impacts attributable to asbestos, nevertheless it has left him with questions concerning the legacy of his childhood house.

“My mum died with what they known as bronchial asthma in 1954, at age 45,” he stated. “I simply wonder if it was bronchial asthma or if it was associated to the asbestos.”

Keeley, who not owns Farris’s outdated home, stated he hardly ever went into the attic and isn’t conscious of any well being problems because of the asbestos there, though he too developed bronchial asthma whereas dwelling there.

“I’m glad I didn’t go in any extra usually than I did,” he stated.

The unfavorable well being results attributable to asbestos had been well known by the 1920s — prompting the then-president of Normal Electrical Firm Gerard Swope to fee famend doctor and occupational well being pioneer Alice Hamilton to evaluate the potential security hazards posed to staff in GE’s U.S. factories. Because of this, a recycling system was applied to make use of hoods to suck up extra asbestos and take away it from the store flooring, decreasing staff’ publicity to its hazardous fibres.

Workers at the General Electric plant in Peterborough perform some cleanup duties at the plant during the 1970s.

GE’s Peterborough plant stopped utilizing asbestos for its manufacturing in Canada in 1980. Caywood didn’t reply to a query from the Star/CBC about whether or not any of its different amenities could have offered scrap asbestos.

A 1942 Pennsylvania division of labour report obtained by the Star/CBC quoted a supervisor of GE’s York, Pa., plant as saying its asbestos recycling system helped create “saleable waste” valued at $500 a yr. It’s not clear who bought the waste.

“The enterprise choice in (Peterborough’s) case was, ‘We’ve bought this waste that we’re constantly producing and have to eliminate. Wouldn’t or not it’s good if we put a extremely nominally low-cost worth on it and get folks to haul it away by themselves,’” Castleman stated.

“From a enterprise standpoint it made excellent sense. However from a public well being viewpoint it was a catastrophe.”

Riel, who can also be the previous president of the union representing GE staff, stated he intends to boost the problem at Peterborough metropolis council — arguing the corporate has a “ethical obligation” to tell native residents concerning the chance its asbestos may very well be of their houses, and that there’s monetary assist out there.

“I’m not speaking about placing some form of scare tactic on the market for the group, however I believe it’s the proper factor to do,” he stated.

“In the event that they had been prepared to do what they did for me for all the opposite locations then they’d clear up a large number that started with them within the first place,” added Keeley.

“By transferring out of Peterborough you don’t transfer away out of your liabilities.”

Peterborough residents with house queries can contact GE Canada’s Environmental Applications Info Line: 1-877-399-9599.

For extra protection, watch CBC’s The Nationwide at 10 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 17.

With information from Dave Seglins and Alex Shprintsen, CBC Information.

Sara Mojtehedzadeh