Asbestos, Canada – A sign along Quebec’s Highway 256 – about 170km east of Montreal – leaves little doubt about the local economy.
“Bienvenue a Asbestos,” it says in French.
Welcome to Asbestos, Quebec.
This was Canada’s first asbestos mine. Now it’s the last.
After decades of international controversy, governments in Quebec and Ottawa have ended official support for production of the fibrous, inflammable mineral that’s known to cause lung disease and cancer.
Quebec’s new government – elected on September 4, 2012 – quickly cancelled a public loan to the mining company in Asbestos. And the federal authorities in Ottawa say they’ll no longer fight international efforts to have Chrysotile – the type of asbestos found in Quebec – declared a hazardous substance.
“Asbestos has killed and is still killing Quebeckers. It should not leave the ground and kill people in other countries.“
– Daniel Green, toxicologist
Until 2010, Canada exported hundreds of thousands of tonnes of asbestos every year, mostly to India, Vietnam and other developing countries.
Opinion polls showed strong public opposition to the trade, largely fuelled by gruesome television documentaries showing Indian workers surrounded by swirling asbestos fibres, and cancer victims in nearby clinics coughing and breathing their last breaths.
Yet hundreds of jobs in eastern Quebec depended on mining a substance that’s barely used anymore in Canada and the United States, and local politicians were champions of a mineral that most of the world abhorred.
Canada’s position – which it has not yet explicitly renounced – has long been that Chrysotile asbestos can be used safely under the right conditions.
Montreal toxicologist Daniel Green has been tracking asbestos use in Quebec for years. He says the industry has cost lives at home and abroad.
“If there was a place where one could answer the question: can asbestos be used safely, it’s here in Quebec,” he says. “But looking at medical records, looking at epidemiology, looking at diseases, the answer is we have failed to use asbestos safely.
“Asbestos has killed and is still killing Quebeckers. It should not leave the ground and kill people in other countries.”
In the town of Asbestos, where a gaping 600-metre-deep pit shows the long history of digging the mineral from the earth, there is overwhelming disbelief in the research that Green talks about. People simply don’t accept that they’ve been part of a trade that kills people.
“This is a malevolent campaign,” says a woman who gives her name only as Marie. “My father, my uncle, my grandfather, all worked in the mine and they’re alive and well.”
Bernard Coulombe agrees. A pugnacious mining engineer in his early 70s, Coulombe has been president of the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos since 1991. He’s fought attempts to curtail asbestos production for decades and dismisses concerns about the impacts of Quebec’s Chrysotile asbestos.
|Bernard Coulombe says perceptions about health risks from asbestos are wrong [Jet Belgraver/Al Jazeera]|
“People say it’s a carcinogen,” he says in an interview with Al Jazeera at his office at the brink of the giant open pit mine. “I just put gasoline in my car. That’s a carcinogen too. It’s how you use it, how you protect yourself.”
Coulombe rejects the notion that his former foreign customers did not enforce safety rules on the use of asbestos.
“We’ve gone over there to see for ourselves,” he says, “and I’ve stopped two [companies] in Vietnam from receiving our product because they were unsafe. It can be done properly.”
Yet he admits he’s probably arguing against the tide of history, that an industry that he’s been part of for 43 years is almost certainly going to disappear in Canada.
“I’m a fighter, but every fighter is sometime defeated so I’m preparing for that. I just wish that I were fighting against scientific fact. But I’m not. I’m fighting perceptions and (those perceptions) are wrong.”
Thousands of victims
Acknowledging that the loss of the government loan has dealt them a potentially fatal blow, Coulombe and his business associates say they’ll keep looking for new investment, but just for a few more months. Given the industry’s precipitous decline – Canada has gone from the world’s leading producer of asbestos to zero production in two decades – and huge health risks associated with the mineral, new investors aren’t likely to be tempted.
Canadian records on the number of people killed or made ill by asbestos exposure aren’t complete, in part because the country’s provincial governments keep health records and have different policies on workplace safety.
But it’s clear that thousands, probably tens of thousands of Canadians, have fallen victim to a mineral that was once ubiquitous in industry, offices and homes.
The country has spent millions of dollars removing asbestos insulation from the stately parliament building in Ottawa.
In her simple townhouse in the city of Trois Riviere, Quebec, Sophia Beaulieu fights a quiet battle to force her provincial government to acknowledge that her father’s death years ago was related to asbestos exposure.
An economist who worked in a government office building known to have asbestos panelling, her father fell ill and died within weeks.
The diagnosis was mesothelioma – a rare form of lung cancer almost always associated with asbestos.
“The disease was very aggressive,” Beaulieu says. “One week he was alive and then the next he was dead. Why won’t our government accept this? Why have they supported this mining? It’s wrong, so wrong.”