Canada’s chronic asbestos problem – by John Gray and Stephanie Nolen (Globe and Mail – Report on Business Magazine – November 21, 2011)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

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.

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