Denial and Fear in Asbestos Towns

Thetford Mines, Quebec, Canada and Libby, Montana are both cursed with asbestos mines, but there is a difference in attitude toward asbestos in the two towns.

Thetford Mines

An anonymous resident of Thetford Mines was interviewed in 2007 for the Montreal Gazette as she watched children at St. Louis public school chasing each other around the schoolyard. Towering behind them just a few blocks away, was a massive, steel-gray “tailing pile” of residue from asbestos mines.Thetford Asbestos Mine

“That’s what we call an asbestos dump,” a schoolyard monitor said, laughing.

Like 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.

When she was told that 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?

Say what?!?!

“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.

Are you kidding me?!?

Thetford Mines was founded on, named after and built around its asbestos mines. Yet townspeople here have learned not to use the word “asbestos.” The asbestos mined in Thetford Mines, called chrysotile, is not as deadly as other types, such as amphibole, which is now banned for use in Canada and the United States. But chrysotile is nonetheless a known carcinogen.

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.

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, asbestosis, and lung cancer.

All of these diseases have a long latency period, appearing 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. The government study looked at air samples taken in 2004, and concluded it presents no environmental risk.

The Environment Department study was based on standards used by the Ontario government, which are not as strict as the EPA’s. 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.

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.

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.

Libby, Montana

Les Skramstad, a resident of Libby, Montana, is dying of asbestosis, which feels like slow, constant suffocation.

“It’s pretty doggone painful,” he said.

Asbestos released into the air from the now-closed W.R. Grace and Co. vermiculite mine just down the road is blamed by some health authorities for killing about 200 people and sickening one of every eight residents. Skramstad worked at the mine in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

A federal grand jury has since indicted Grace and some of its executives, saying the company knew it was poisoning people. Grace denies criminal wrongdoing.

While lawmakers wrangled with the proposed bill creating a $140 billion trust fund for asbestos victims — with the money supplied largely by defendant companies and their insurers — more people died. The bill stalled in Congress after some conservative senators feared the cost would eventually be passed on to taxpayers.

The legislation included a provision specifically for Libby residents that would pay those who can prove they have asbestos-related diseases up to $1.1 million each.

As Congress has stopped and started on the bill several times, Skramstad and others who are dying of asbestos poisoning say many in Washington don’t understand Libby’s plight.

Of the 150 people he worked with four decades ago, only five are alive, Skramstad said.

“It’s going to kill us, every one of us,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time. … This is a lot more serious than a lot of people realize.”

The vermiculite mine provided material for various products and insulation. It was the best job in town, keeping Libby residents employed for decades. But it also blew tremolite asbestos — a particularly hazardous form — all over town.

The long, needlelike asbestos tremolite fibers can easily become embedded in human lungs and cause asbestosis or mesothelioma.

Montana’s two senators, Democrat Max Baucus and Republican Conrad Burns, have worked to convince the Senate about Libby’s dire situation. But Baucus, who wrote the legislation, said some lawmakers can’t visualize the problem — unlike more publicized tragedies like Hurricane Katrina that play out for television.

“Libby is off the beaten track and it’s not as visible to the cameras, but the tragedy is just as bad if not worse because it lingers on for so long,” Baucus said.

Some senators, including John Cornyn, R-Texas, objected to the benefit because they believe it would be unfair to people elsewhere who may have been exposed to asbestos.

Burns said they have to work with other members to get the best legislation possible.

“I have people in Libby who are going to die before their case even gets to court,” he said, adding that any court settlements probably wouldn’t be enough.

For now, residents continue to struggle with medical bills. Some have filed for bankruptcy because of the financial strain. In 2006, a health administrator for Grace, which operates under bankruptcy protection, wrote hundreds of Libby residents that they no longer have asbestos-related disease or may not be as sick as they thought.

Tanis Hernandez, outreach coordinator for Libby’s Center for Asbestos Related Disease, said many of those who are sick can no longer work, further threatening their finances.

Hernandez, whose job includes helping sickened residents deal with legal problems and counseling dying patients, said the town has lost its innocence. Because Grace was the best employer in town, many people put their faith in the company to take care of them.

What many people don’t realize, she added, is that Libby’s particular disease is different and requires a different solution.

“It’s kind of an invisible disease,” she said. “Unless you know someone really well, you might not know how sick they are.”

As for Skramstad, his wife and two of his grown children have also been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases, likely a result of the dust he brought home on his clothes and shoes every night. Because the diseases can take years to develop, he fears his other children will be next.

“I am in terror of it every day,” he said. “It’s a hard cross for me to carry around. I went to work there and I carried that stuff back to my wife and kids.”

Skramstad’s wife, Norita, said so many people are dying that some town residents are thinking of replacing a growing collection of makeshift crosses with a more permanent memorial.

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