A Town Called Asbestos

Welcome to the town of Asbestos, Quebec These days, 'asbestos' is a word with a sense of doom attached to it

But when this mine was opened in the late 19th century, that really wasn't the case Which is why they named the town after it This pit just here was the biggest asbestos mine in the world Asbestos is a mineral, easily mined in pits like this It can be turned into strong, cheap, fire-resistant insulation, and it was used in a huge number of building projects in the 20th century

Either as big insulation blocks, or in ceiling tiles, or just sprayed on as cladding It was a miracle substance: it could even be woven into clothing, like military uniforms or firefighters' gloves The catch is that it's made up of microscopic little fibrous crystals If you break asbestos, drop it, sandpaper it, turn it into insulation and spray it around, those little fibres get into the air and build up in people's lungs Decades later, people who've worked with absestos, or lived near an asbestos mine, they tend to develop a particularly nasty type of cancer called mesothelioma

Any exposure to asbestos fibres, however small, can be dangerous And in this town, there was sometimes so much asbestos dust in the air that kids could write their names in it when it settled We know all that now, so: why haven't they changed the name? In 2006, the town's then-mayor tried to change it, but the idea was voted down And I wanted to find out why, but no-one from the town wanted to talk to me I emailed quite a few places, the local government, the historical society

Everyone either said no, they weren't interested, or just didn't reply They were polite, of course, they're Canadian, but it wasn't for them And it took me perhaps a little bit too long to realise why The name attracts people like me and viewers like you I knew this video was going to be titled "A Town Called Asbestos" right away, it's the obvious title, it's got a ring to it

Which is why there's already a five-part series on YouTube from 2011 called exactly that, put together by a researcher who spent years with this town She turned her PhD into a book, also titled "A Town Called Asbestos" Vicecom published a series by a German photojournalist, titled "A Town Called Asbestos" All the time, people turn up here, to document The Town with The Name

Some of them, like this author, are thorough and sympathetic and take decades of history into account Some aren't Some just set up a camera by the mine overlook, turn up for a couple of hours and film something Others don't even visit, they just make fun of them from the other side of the world "Why? Because the town's name is Asbestos

" [AUDIENCE LAUGHTER] How do you feel about the name? Why don't you change it? They've answered these same questions for years, and I suspect they're very, very tired of it The clearest answer that I've found is from an interview in the Globe and Mail in 2016 Ghislain Tessier, vice-president of a local chamber of commerce, said: "Asbestos was our lives It was our heritage" And I think that's the key to why this town is still called Asbestos

Because, yes, for most of the world, the name is alarming But here, that's tempered with the fact that this mine, like a coal mine or a gold mine, it was how people made their living Lots of people worked in the mine, and their parents, and their grandparents, and their great-grandparents It was part of their identity, a mineral that the world wanted to use, it was made right here by them, and it saved lives, and it really was something to be proud of Asbestos, and this mine, was defended by the folks who worked here

In '97, just after France banned asbestos, four men from this town, four of the luckier ones, ran the Paris Marathon And they were congratulated in a statement in Canada's Parliament for showing that the risks weren't that great Because the risks were drastically downplayed by management and by government Even after the world at large agreed how dangerous asbestos is, economics and the desire for profit meant that it was still mined for decades here This mine only closed in 2012

It's only been a few years Maybe the name will change, if only to stop jerks like me coming along and going, 'ooh, look at this place' But not just yet Dr Jessica van Horssen's book is the definitive history of the town and the mine, a lot of this video is based on it, and I thoroughly recommend it

Source: Youtube

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