Abestos 'very low' in Thetford Mines air

The concentration of asbestos in the air in Thetford Mines, Que., is "very small" according to a long-awaited review released by the province's National Public Health Institute on Friday.

The concentration of asbestos in the air in Thetford Mines, Que., is "very small" according to a long-awaited review released Friday by the province’s National Public Health Institute.

The report is being welcomed by officials in the town of 26,000, home to Canada’s last operational asbestos mining operation.

The review examined two studies: one conducted by the Association of Quebec Asbestos Victims, which was published in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, and a second conducted by the province’s Ministry of Sustainable Development, the Environment, and Parks.

Over a 35-year period, one resident of Thetford Mines is likely to die from a cancer related to the presence of asbestos fibres in the air, officials said.

The number compares to the statistical probability of 1,000 deaths related to lung cancer caused by smoking, or 100 deaths related to car accidents, officials said.

"In the residents of Thetford, there has been a denial of the risk," said the region’s director of Dr. Philippe Lessard.

The report is an opportunity to warn residents that while the risk remains small, there are potential dangers, Lessard said.

Still, Lessard said he would have no problem moving to the mining town, marked by its mountains of asbestos tailings.

Thetford Mines Mayor Luc Berthold said the report should put an end to what he calls the "smear campaign" against asbestos.

"This confirms what we’ve thought for years — that yes, there is asbestos in the air, but not in quantities serious enough to cause explosive damage" said Berthold. "We are happy. We are aware that there is more asbestos [than in other communities] — that we will have to take steps to improve the situation."

Public health officials are recommending the city take steps to limit exposure to asbestos. For example, they said the city should stop using asbestos tailings as an abrasive on the town’s streets during the winter time.

Officials said information sheets will also be sent out to each household advising people of the risk.

Call for asbestos ban

But, critics of asbestos have a different reading of the report.

"This study underlines the fact that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure," said NDP MP Pat Martin. "Canada must ban asbestos in all its forms, stop its export, and begin measures to help this region of Quebec transition to a different economic base."

In June another NDP MP, Nathan Cullen, tabled Bill C-399, calling for a ban on the mining and exportation of asbestos in all its forms.

Asbestos, also known as chrysotile, is recognized for its heat- and fire-resistant qualities. It was widely used in Canada and around the world between the 1950s and the 70s, often as insulation.

Ottawa has spent about $20 million since the mid-1980s to promote asbestos use and there is very little political opposition to the industry in the province.

Several countries, especially poorer ones, still import asbestos from Canada despite numerous studies linking it to health hazards, including cancer.

With files from The Canadian Press