For a place of modest size, Asbestos has made an impressive imprint on the Canadian psyche. In 1949, the Asbestos Strike—which took place at the mines in Asbestos and nearby Thetford Mines—helped to usher in the Quiet Revolution that shaped the modern Quebec. And in 2011, the place’s eponymous product is giving a black eye to Canada’s international reputation as a fair dealer.
Most of the world, including the medical community, agrees that asbestos is desperately dangerous. The World Health Organization reports that more than 100,000 people die every year from lung cancer and other respiratory diseases due to asbestos exposure. And many more will die, because 125 million people are exposed to asbestos in their workplaces today and every day.
No surprise, then, that the stuff is effectively banned in Canada. And a surprise, to observers, that Canada exports it to other countries, most notoriously India, where public-health regimes are less vigorous than in Canada.
But that fact is no more mysterious than two forces that are as well known in India as they are in Canada. One is the power of supply and demand. The other is the vacuum of political indifference.
The industry has seen better days. There are just two mines remaining in Quebec’s asbestos belt. The Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos is in semi-operational stasis while it awaits refinancing. According to some reports, the LAB Chrysotile mine in Thetford Mines will, by the time you read this, have stopped churning out the piles of tailings that define the town’s appearance. (“Chrysotile” is the recent rebranding of the white asbestos that the region produces.)
By any measure, it is weird geography. The huge open-pit mines were once the largest pits in the Western hemisphere. The massive rounded hills of tailings seem to have been dropped onto the landscape from above. Except for the trucks spiralling ever downward in the pits, you might figure you’re on the moon.
Over the years, the overburden of rock waste has acquired a rough patina of vegetation. But on the tailings, which is the fine gravel left after the rock has been crushed and the asbestos extracted, there is little sign of life. Some of the piles date from the first mines, more than a century ago.
Luc Berthold, the cheerful mayor of Thetford Mines, seems oblivious to the moonscape. In response to a recent report on local health risks posed by asbestos, the mayor said that no, the municipality would not fence off the tailings to stop young people from using them as an ATV playground. The mayor did concede, however, that the town would cease using the mine residue as a substitute for salt and sand on winter roads.
Defensive about his town’s reputation, Berthold told a Montreal reporter that the effect of asbestos dust on health pales compared to that of smog in Montreal. In the anteroom to Berthold’s office, piles of glossy flyers promote asbestos’s “safe and irreplaceable fibres,” with charts proving that tobacco and highway accidents are thousands of times more dangerous than asbestos in schools.
It’s hard to blame the place for this attitude. After all, it wouldn’t exist without the strange fibre that a farmer named Joseph Fecteau stumbled upon in 1876. He’d hit a rich vein of asbestos, long known in Europe as a miraculous substance that could not be burned or damaged by fire. Within a few years, the Thetford area was the asbestos capital of the world, and Quebeckers called the fibres white gold.
Asbestos was soon everywhere, in houses, in factories, in cars, in thousands upon thousands of industrial and household products—all kinds of insulation as well as everything from brake pads to paint, cement, siding, shingles, pipes, ceiling and floor tiles, clutch facings, even crayons.
For people in Thetford Mines, asbestos dust has been around forever and it’s hard to get excited about a disease that can take up to 40 years to have an effect. For those who live here, asbestos is just a fact of life.
Typical is Sylvain Gagné, who simply shrugs at the mention of asbestosis or cancer or mesothelioma. He is sitting on his veranda, facing a hillside of tailings across the street, contentedly eating a plateful of mashed potatoes. If there is any illness in Thetford Mines, it’s because of people drinking too much, he says, particularly young people who can’t get jobs.
Gagné hasn’t worked at the mine, but his father and grandfather, who is 87, both did, without apparent ill effect.