Asbestos Worker (National Film Board of Canada)

Asbestos Worker (National Film Board of Canada)


All about asbestos, the substance that was once one of Canada's major resources until it was found to be dangerous to the people who pulled it out of the earth and processed it.

Be sure to listen to the show right here.
The needle-like fibres seemed like nature's perfect gift. It was fireproof, indestructible and cheap. And from the 1940s to the 1970s, asbestos was everywhere. It was woven into clothes, used to insulate buildings and even mixed with water as children's play dough. But by the late 1960s and '70s, study upon study linked asbestos to voracious diseases such as lung cancer, scarred lungs (asbestosis) and mesothelioma, a cancer of the stomach and chest that is only caused by exposure to asbestos.

As recently as 2010, Canada was still producing 150,000 tonnes of asbestos annually, all of it in Quebec, and exporting 90 per cent -- worth about $90 million -- to developing countries.
The domestic asbestos industry is all but dead now, following the Quebec government's decision in September to cancel a loan to the country's last remaining mine. That was the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos, Quebec. The largest asbestos mine in Thetford Mines, Quebec had also been shut down.  

On this Rewind, a look at asbestos- the industry, the miners, and the health concerns.
Asbestos is a natural mineral formed during intense volcanic activities millions of years ago. By the late 1800s asbestos was mined commercially for its fireproof and virtually indestructible properties.
Quebec was rich in asbestos and it became a symbol for Canada's prosperity and wealth.

In the first clip from 1942, the CBC's Lorne Greene visits the world's biggest open-pit mine- the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos, Quebec.

Canada's honeymoon with the magic mineral came to a dramatic end when in 1954, an American doctor called Irving Selikoff first made the link between asbestos and fatal diseases. The industry either denied or tried to limit the scope of the findings. In the fall of 1974, Dr. Selikoff, by then considered to be the world's foremost authority on asbestos-related diseases, examined workers in Thetford Mines. He and his team of eight doctors described the conditions there as the worst in North America.

The program As it Happens in 1975 examined the issue.

The doctors who examined the Thetford Mines workers said that it was "suicide" to live there and that the whole town is full of "very sick people." They were shocked at the poor working conditions which provided no protection from the dense cloud of deadly asbestos dust. One doctor said: "It's almost as if they're committing genocide."

Thetford Mines was the site of Canada's first asbestos mine. It opened in 1879. In 1949 one of the nastiest strikes in Canadian history took place in Thetford Mines. A young activist named Pierre Elliott Trudeau successfully fought alongside miners for better working conditions. Trudeau, of course, went on to become the prime minister of Canada.
In 1975 a group of miners at an asbestos mine in Baie Verte Newfoundland went on strike.

Their demands were simple. The 500 miners were not asking for more pay or more vacation time. What they wanted was double lockers: one for their clean clothes and another to store their asbestos-covered work clothes. They wanted car washes and showers. They wanted a clean lunchroom. It was all in an attempt to protect themselves and their families from exposure to the deadly asbestos dust.

And so the Baie Verte asbestos miners began the longest strike in Canadian history for health reasons. The protest caught the attention of the nation. Support flooded in from across the country. The clip we played illustrated Barbara Frum's classic dogged interview style. She was questioning Brian Peckford, who was Newfoundland's minister for mines and energy at the time.

The near 15-week strike finally came to an end when the Johns Manville Corporation, the multinational that owned the mine in Baie Verte, agreed to the workers' demands.

Of course it wasn't just miners that were affected by dangerous substances like asbestos. It was also an issue in uranium mines. 

The next piece we aired is from 1979 and the program Morningside with Don Harron. What he and his guest look at in this segment is why the Canadian government has been so slow to recognize the problems with mining dangerous substances of every kind. 

Even if you weren't a miner, you could still be harmed by asbestos. In 1980, the CBC Toronto morning program Metro Morning looked into fatal effects of asbestosis in a Scarborough asbestos processing plant.

Then people started worrying about the asbestos that was in our homes, work places and schools. 

Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as Health Canada said buildings that contained asbestos in the walls or ceilings generally do not pose a hazard, there was an outcry for its removal. Rewind aired sounds from a meeting held in 1981 at a Toronto area school.

In 1982, Manville Corporation, formerly Johns Manville, filed for "re-organization and protection" under chapter 11 of the U.S. bankruptcy laws. The world's largest asbestos company was imploding under health-related lawsuits. According to a CBC Television report from that year, the corporation had settled 16,000 lawsuits at an average of $40,000 per settlement by 1982 but were expecting 32,000 more.

Often the people who worked with asbestos were its most ardent defenders. In 2002 when the biggest mine in the town of Asbestos closed, the workers took to the streets to protest. 

The domestic asbestos industry is all but dead now, following the Quebec government's decision to cancel a loan to the country's last remaining mine.

This fall the Federal Minister of Industry, Christian Paradis, who had previously supported the asbestos industry, announced that the government would no longer oppose global rules that restrict the use and shipment of asbestos. It also plans to invest up to 50 million dollars to help the country's last remaining asbestos mining region, in Quebec's Eastern townships, to diversify into other areas of activity.

The World Health Organization says 107,000 people around the world die annually from ongoing workplace exposure to asbestos. It is still used in many developing countries in everything from roofing tiles to cement pipes and boiler insulation, and last year Canada imported $2.6 million worth of asbestos brake pads.