MAC: Mines and Communities

Town built on asbestos downplays health risks

Published by MAC on 2007-11-09

Town built on asbestos downplays health risks

9th November 2007

by Michelle Lalonde, Montreal Gazette

THETFORD MINES - Children at St. Louis public school chased each other around the schoolyard Friday, climbing the play structures and panting happily in the cool late morning air. Towering behind them just a few blocks away, a massive, steel-grey "tailing pile" of residue from asbestos mines jutted severely into the November sky.

"That's what we call an asbestos dump," a schoolyard monitor said, laughing.

Like so many people in Thetford Mines, she didn't want to give her name when it came to talking about the health risks of exposure to asbestos, the cancer causing fibrous mineral that has been mined here for 130 years.

The issue is just too political, she said. Nobody notices the tailing piles anymore, she added. She grew up with them as part of the landscape, just as the kids at play.

This week, a study in a prestigious U.S. scientific journal claimed that some homes in Thetford Mines are severely contaminated by asbestos.

The woman shrugged. "It doesn't bother me. I'm not worried about it at all. A lot of people around here live to be 80, 90, 100 years old, and now they're coming up with this?

"I've never heard of people dying because of the air in their homes."

That's the attitude of most folks you run into in Thetford Mines.

This town was founded on, named after and built around its asbestos mines. Yet townspeople here have learned not to use the word "asbestos" - and generally will correct you if you do.

The type of asbestos mined in Thetford Mines, called chrysotile, is not as deadly as its cousin amphibole, which is now banned for use in Canada and the United States. But chrysotile is nonetheless a known carcinogen.

The authors of the study published in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health are members of a group called the Asbestos Victims Association of Quebec, an affiliation that makes some in this town skeptical of its results.

The air, dust and soil samples were taken by a certified industrial hygienist and analyzed by an independent, recognized laboratory. The study was peer reviewed, edited and verified before it was accepted for publication, publisher Sandra Lovegrove said in an interview.

Still, some people here are put off by the fact that the authors are from AVAQ.

"Those people who had their houses tested are just whiners, looking for compensation," said Claude Marois, a retired miner who spent 38 years in Thetford Mines' Bell mine.

"We made a very good living in the mines, and I don't regret it for a minute.

Several of his buddies gathered at a Tim Hortons nodded in agreement. One said he wishes people would stop harping on the health risks of asbestos.

"It's paranoia. It's just like with smoking. I know lots of people who smoke and live to be 80 or 90 years old."

"Now people are saying three quarters of the houses here are contaminated," said another retired miner at the table. "That kind of talk is not great for the region, I'll tell you that."

Marois is among many Thetford Mines residents who have used residue from the mines for landscape work around his house. He knows there are traces of asbestos in the sand, but it doesn't bother him.

The mining residue "was free, and you just cover it with a few inches of dirt and some grass, and you don't have to worry about (the asbestos)" he said.

Some of his former co-workers have died of asbestos-related illnesses, but Marois attributes that to a vulnerability on their part.

All in all, he said, the people of Thetford Mines have had a great run on the strength of the town's asbestos mines.

In the late 1970s, soon after Quebec nationalized its asbestos mines, evidence started building that the fibrous mineral - popular as insulation - caused lung cancer and other serious lung ailments.

Now it is widely accepted that asbestos exposure causes three major health problems: mesothelioma (a cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs), lung cancer and asbestosis (a disease that hampers breathing and robs the lungs of oxygen).

All of these diseases appear between 20 to 40 years after exposure. All types of asbestos, including chrysotile, have been associated with these illnesses.

For decades, Quebec has watched its asbestos industry slowly collapse despite valiant lobbying efforts by government and the industry.

Many countries, including Canada, banned asbestos for use in insulation, and spent millions to remove it from schools and other public buildings.

The market for asbestos shifted to developing countries, and today most of the asbestos mined in Thetford Mines goes to southeast Asia, the Middle East and South and Central America.

In 1992, Quebec announced a policy to promote increased use of chrysotile by government departments, related organizations and municipalities in new construction.

As part of that pro-chrysotile policy, Quebec's Environment Department commissioned a number of studies hoping to demonstrate the relative safety of chrysotile. One was trotted out this week, in response to the study published in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health.

The government study looked at air samples taken in 2004, and concluded it presents no environmental risk. Thetford Mines Mayor Luc Berthold immediately issued a news release.

"This study is much more serious and credible than the one published (earlier) this week," Berthold said. "Here we are talking about scientists using rigorous methods to produce a real report and not some kind of association of people who took almost four years to find an American review that wanted to publish their pseudo study."

But an author of the AVAQ report, William Charney, said the methods used in the government study are questionable - and the levels it claims to have found should actually raise concerns.

Charney, a former industrial hygienist and safety engineer who is now a full-time environmental health advocate based in Brattleboro, Vt., said the government's method does not differentiate between asbestos fibres and other types of fibres, and does not pick up the finest fibres, which are the most dangerous, he said.

He noted the AVAQ study used standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency when it studied asbestos contamination at Ground Zero following the terrorist attacks in New York.

The Environment Department study was based on standards used by the Ontario government, which are not as strict as the EPA's. (Quebec has not set its own standards.) The asbestos content in the air in Thetford Mines - even according to the government study - is "10 times above what the EPA would consider clean," Charney said.

Herve Rousseau, 80, took a reporter and a photographer on a tour of the tailing piles that have loomed across the street from his home for most of his life.

He bent down and grabbed a handful of the loose rock, to show that it is not stable and harmless, as mine authorities claim.

The dust whips into the air when the wind blows, he said, and although the air is not as bad as it was before the mines brought in cleaning equipment, the contaminated dust gets into houses and gardens - and lungs.

Rousseau worked in a mine for seven years as a young man, and he blames his pleural plaque disease on his time in the mine and on the tailing piles.

He blames his wife's death from cancer in 1985 on asbestos, and says his doctor advised him to move out of his house eight years ago because he believed it was saturated with dust.

Rousseau helped start a group called the Association des victimes non-reconnues de l'amiante, because he felt it wasn't fair that only miners were being compensated when they developed asbestos-related illnesses. He believes residents are vulnerable simply by breathing the air.

A study by the Institut national de sante publique du Quebec found a significant increase in the incidence of mesothelioma, an asbestos-related lung disease, between 1982 and 1996.

The authors singled out the Chaudiere-Appalaches region, which includes Thetford Mines and other mining towns, like Asbestos, as having particularly high rates of mesothelioma.

The mines now employ fewer than 700 people in this town of 26,000.

Those who dare speak against the industry say it should bear some responsibility for cleaning its mess. But many of the mining companies are long gone.

"The mining companies just wanted to make as much money as possible and then get out," Rousseau said. He gestured toward the tailing piles. "And we are left with this."

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