Ep. 46: A Debate on the Dregs of Asbestos Mining

Welcome to the reboot of The Undark Podcast, which will deliver — once a month from September to May — a feature-length exploration of a single topic at the intersection of science and society. In this episode, join reporter Emma Jacobs and podcast host Lydia Chain as they pull back the curtain on the companies trying to transform the dregs of asbestos mining into profitable products — and the health officials who fear this new industry will awaken an old problem.

Below is the full transcript of the podcast, lightly edited for clarity. You can also subscribe to The Undark Podcast at Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, or Spotify.

Florence Loubier, translated in voiceover from French: Come sunset, it’s absolutely beautiful. It’s grey and pink.

Emma Jacobs: This is Florence Loubier, who has lived here in Thetford Mines, Quebec her entire life.

Florence Loubier, translated in voiceover from French: It’s pink! It’s absolutely beautiful!

Emma Jacobs: And the view she loves to watch turn pink at sunset is the rim of one of the town’s abandoned asbestos mines.

Florence Loubier: Oui, c’est impressionnant.

Lydia Chain: This is the Undark Podcast. I’m Lydia Chain. Asbestos — which you’ve probably heard of as material used in insulation, that’s been tied to cancer — is actually a set of minerals mined in places like the Canadian province of Quebec. Mining of these strong, fire-resistant fibers began in this region in the 1870s and lasted right up until the last decade. The mining operations left a massive imprint on this landscape. Not just the pits of the open-air mines, but piles of ground-up mining waste left over after the asbestos was extracted … an estimated 800 million tons of them throughout the province. Today, a number of companies are eager to transform that waste, extracting valuable materials like magnesium and eliminating any remaining asbestos in the process. But health officials worry this new industry might come with some of the same problems as the one Quebec finally seemed to be moving away from. Reporter Emma Jacobs took a trip to Canada’s asbestos belt to learn more.

Emma Jacobs: Mountains of dark grey, ground-up stone slope up from the roads all around Thetford Mines. In French, they’re known as the “haldes.” And they loom over Florence Loubier’s childhood memories.

Florence Loubier, translated in voiceover from French: I even used to play in the “haldes” — the piles. Or even occasionally went to bring my father his meals, when he had to work through them. It’s always been part of my life. I’m surrounded by the “haldes.”

Emma Jacobs: The man-made mountains have slopes too steep and tough to support much vegetation. They’re scattered around Thetford Mines, where Marc-Alexandre Brousseau is mayor.

Marc-Alexandre Brousseau, translated in voiceover from French: When we’re talking about 400 million tons of sand from the mines in our area — I’m not even talking of elsewhere — that won’t disappear with the wave of a magic wand.

Emma Jacobs: This is one reason why he thinks companies looking to turn some of that material into valuable products should be welcomed with open arms.

But he’s been feuding for a long time with public health authorities in Quebec who say the former mining towns don’t fully appreciate the health dangers of asbestos and aren’t prepared to protect workers and residents — including his region’s public health director, Philippe Lessard.

Philippe Lessard, translated in voiceover from French: It may look like a voluntary risk that people accept, but that’s not necessarily my interpretation. I don’t think it’s voluntary from the moment that people don’t have the right information and the correct perception of the risk to make that decision.

Emma Jacobs: It’s not that people here deny that asbestos can cause disease. It was seen here earlier than most. As early as the 1930s, medical evaluations performed on Canadian miners revealed that they were getting sick from inhaling asbestos fibers into their lungs.

Mining companies worked to limit the spread of information that could damage their business. Asbestos was marketed as a miracle fiber, fire-resistant and safe enough to replace flammable cotton as fake snow on film sets — including the 1939 movie “The Wizard of Oz.”

In the mining towns, asbestos once fell like snow around the mills where it was processed and dust hung over entire neighborhoods.

But in the decades that followed, mine workers in Quebec held a series of strikes with demands including better working conditions to prevent the lung diseases many miners developed. Not only did Florence Loubier’s father and grandfathers work in asbestos mines, but so did her brother and her husband. She joined the women’s strike support committee in Thetford Mines in 1975.

Florence Loubier, translated in voiceover from French: We really wanted there to be an improvement, to have a system to reduce dust.

Emma Jacobs: Afterwards, Loubier said, the mining companies in the region did install equipment to control loose asbestos fibers in the mines and mills where the rock was broken apart to extract the asbestos fibers.

And she has come away from all of this holding two beliefs simultaneously: one that asbestos can cause disease, but also that the material can be handled and used safely with the right equipment.

Florence Loubier, translated in voiceover from French: The work was improved, the systems. People had areas where they had masks, too. I also have a brother who worked testing the asbestos and he has asbestosis today, has trouble breathing. He would tell me, “I didn’t know you needed to wear those things.” They didn’t know. Today, it’s well-organized. More and more, it’s well-done; people are protected more.

Emma Jacobs: But by the time miners in Quebec were winning their battles against the companies for these protections, it was becoming clear to people around the world that asbestos could cause health problems not just where it was produced, but where it was transformed and used.

Excerpt from documentary “Alice – A Fight for Life”: Alice Jefferson is also dying from an asbestos-related disease. She has a rare form of cancer.

Emma Jacobs: In the early 80s, a British documentary called “Alice — A Fight for Life” introduced viewers in Europe and the United States to a woman who had developed cancer after working only briefly with asbestos in a factory decades before her diagnosis.

Excerpt from documentary “Alice – A Fight for Life”: Alice’s cancer is called mesothelioma or cancer of the lung lining.

Emma Jacobs: Like with any carcinogen, not everyone exposed to asbestos will develop cancer. But the documentary broadcast to a much wider audience the links scientists had found between even low levels of asbestos exposure and increased risk of developing cancer — even much later.

Fibers that got trapped in the lungs or other parts of the body could produce biological changes and damage to cells that eventually cause disease. The documentary showed workmen now coming to pull out asbestos insulation.

Excerpt from documentary “Alice – A Fight for Life”: From a London housing project. It’s such a dangerous job the men wear masks with a separate oxygen supply and three layers of protective clothing which must be decontaminated after use.

Emma Jacobs: Demand for asbestos was falling. Over the next several decades, asbestos would be banned in more than 50 countries. But its impacts linger today. A recent study on 2016 data found asbestos to be the workplace carcinogen accounting for the highest number of deaths.

The Canadian asbestos industry continued to lobby for a long time that the type of asbestos found here was safer than others. (It might be, marginally, but it’s still a carcinogen, according to numerous health organizations.) Asbestos mining in Quebec and exports continued, largely to developing countries.

The last two mines in this region only closed in 2012. One in Thetford Mines. The other, Jeffrey Mine, is about an hour’s drive south and west in the town of Asbestos, Quebec.

The process to mine asbestos created mountain upon mountain of gravel, still laced with trace amounts of asbestos. And, of the 800 million tons of mine waste left in the province, most of it is concentrated around these two areas.

Health experts think the wind probably carries fibers from the mounds into the surrounding air to this day. And the piles are difficult and expensive to move safely. And then, in Asbestos, there’s the pit from the open-air mine, more than a mile wide, just across a road from the nearest homes.

[Ambient noise]

Emma Jacobs: Meanwhile, city councilor Alain Roy [pronounced: Roi] says, the town of Asbestos is still rebuilding after the loss of its founding industry.

[Alain Roy, speaking in French beneath narration]

He says since the 1980s, the population has fallen from 11,500 to around 7,000 today.

Roy says when the mine was profitable, money wasn’t required to be put aside for the restoration of the site. When Johns Manville, the American company that owned the mine, filed for bankruptcy over health lawsuits in the 80s, the mine was sold to its local managers.

And, he says, from what he can tell, they don’t seem to have the money to restore the site.

The town of Asbestos has made progress in diversifying its economy — even including some mining-related tourism. It holds a big summer festival featuring slack-lining across the mine.

When we spoke, the town was also in the process of choosing a new name — after years of debate over whether that would be a rejection of local history. Having a name other than Asbestos, city government hopes, will make it easier to attract new businesses.

But one industry that has come knocking are companies interested in transforming — you could say recycling — the piles of mining residues to extract other valuable materials.

Safety Video: Anyone entering the site must wear long sleeve shirts, a safety helmet, safety glasses, security shoes…

Emma Jacobs: In a field just outside of town, giant mesas of residues rise up behind the processing facility of Alliance Magnesium. The company’s founder, Joël Fournier, holds up what looks like a baby food jar of dark grey sand and gravel.

Joël Fournier: Yeah what you’re seeing here is in fact is the residue. That was essentially the rocks containing the asbestos.

Emma Jacobs: What’s left anyway, after rock from Jeffrey Mine was broken down to extract asbestos fibers.

To Fournier, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry, they look like a valuable resource.

Joël Fournier: When you look at those mountains what you have to consider is one quarter of those mountains could be considered as magnesium metal.

Emma Jacobs: To extract that magnesium, Alliance Magnesium trucks in mining waste to this facility. Then, they grind up the gravel even further, and treat it with hydrochloric acid. As a side effect, the process also destroys the remaining asbestos fibers.

Electricity is pumped through the remains to separate the metal.

Emma Jacobs: And this is the finished product?

Joël Fournier: Yeah, exactly. This is a big ingot so if you’re if you’re let’s say you want to practice your …

Emma Jacobs: I’m a little nervous here.

Joël Fournier: Yeah. Yeah Take it.

Emma Jacobs: Oh my gosh.

It’s heavy — a piece the size of a big log weighs over 17 pounds — but a steel ingot would weigh 70 percent more.

Joël Fournier: The car industry use this material to reduce the weight to meet the new standard regulation for the emissions of those car. So, meanings that the more the car is light, okay, the less it will emit, because it will be lighter, so it would consume less energy.

Emma Jacobs: The problem with that equation, he says, is that, right now, most magnesium comes from China, where the production process consumes a lot of energy.

Joël Fournier: That is using a lot of thermal coal.

Emma Jacobs: The electricity here in Quebec is mostly generated from hydroelectric dams.

Combined with the composition of the rock here and the fact that it’s already out of the ground — Fournier can produce magnesium at a fraction of the carbon emissions of Chinese magnesium.

Joël Fournier: So it means that this is a very, very positive, let’s say, mass balance, if I can say for the CO2 globally.

Emma Jacobs: Right now, he’s scaling up from a pilot plant to commercial-scale factory, with hopes to eventually produce 35,000 tons of magnesium a year from mine debris.

But there are other proposed projects as well around both Asbestos and Thetford Mines. And the possibility of industrial-scale operations stirring up asbestos-laced waste — also sometimes called mine tailings — has worried public health officials locally and nationally.

Paul Demers: You have to get those tailings to a processing center in some way. You have to disturb that pile…

Emma Jacobs: Paul Demers is the director of the Occupational Cancer Research Center in Toronto.

Paul Demers: Get it onto some kind of conveyor belt or some kind of vehicle, it’s then going to take it someplace. And that certainly increases the risk. I mean, it’s very difficult to control exposure under those circumstances.

Emma Jacobs: A government study of residues in and around Thetford Mines found they contained up to 40 percent asbestos by volume. Most samples had between 10 and 25 percent.

Fournier and others say that they have ways to keep their workers from inhaling loose fibers such as wetting the material to keep down dust, and having workers wear masks.

But Demers says we can tell from for example, the construction industry that best practices — things as simple as keeping masks on all the time — aren’t always easy to be consistent about.

Paul Demers: It’s difficult to do it correctly, and it’s expensive. Now, this industry, if it works out the way they’re proposing, it could be very lucrative, so maybe they can afford to do this the right way. But we have to start with the fact that it, it almost always is a problem.

Emma Jacobs: He’s concerned that Quebec’s standard for workplace exposure to certain types of asbestos remains 10 times higher — more permissive — than what’s allowed in most of Canada.

And once airborne, Demers says, asbestos fibers can get brought home by workers on their clothes or cars, and be inhaled by their families. Then there are the people who live nearby. Particularly in Thetford Mines where some piles are right up against homes, which is already a concern before any projects that would disturb them further.

Paul Demers: Studies have found that it’s not just people who are exposed to asbestos in the workplace, but others who have developed an increased risk of mesothelioma. 

Emma Jacobs: It may not be a risk that’s easy to see in a small population. But it’s worrying to health officials in Quebec like Philippe Lessard. He’s been public health director for the region including Thetford Mines for two decades and says it’s not easy to talk about the health risks of asbestos here.

Philippe Lessard, translated in voiceover from French: Asbestos is a positive term in this region, at a cultural level, at an economic level. Since forever. It’s only in the last few years that there’s been a movement that’s led people to consider that asbestos can cause health problems.

Emma Jacobs: And even then, people don’t have the same level of caution as public health professionals might like. People ride ATVs up and down the mounds.

Another thing he points to is how casually the mining residues were spread around the town of Thetford Mines. Even though it was known there was some asbestos left in them, they were so abundant and convenient, they were used in construction, for paving parking lots and terraces.

Philippe Lessard, translated in voiceover from French: In 2009, even city government had contracts with private companies that used the mining residues as road abrasive.

Emma Jacobs: That’s the sand spread across slippery city streets in the winter to keep drivers safe. Lessard called for that to stop and health officials suggested that protective measures be taken during activities like road construction in the presence of asbestos.

That makes public works much more expensive here. And created a perception among some at least that strict regulations are at odds with economic growth. Including Mayor Marc-Alexandre Brousseau.

Marc-Alexandre Brousseau, translated in voiceover from French: If you take a shovel to the ground anywhere within city limits, you’re likely to turn up some of that grey sand.

Emma Jacobs: The Mayor is one of many people who think the fears of low-level asbestos exposure are exaggerated.

Marc-Alexandre Brousseau, translated in voiceover from French: We’re in a situation of theory over reality. We’re the living proof. Today, I’m 44 years old in good health. If it were true that contact with a single asbestos fiber, you’ll die 30 years later, because that’s the latency period of the illness, I don’t think there’d be anyone of my generation alive today.

Emma Jacobs: Shortly after Lessard expressed concerns about the mine waste transformation projects and tourist visits to the mine, Brousseau wrote a public letter to the health minister calling for his dismissal.

Quote: Like a dictator, he has thrown out all logic and common sense and is waging open war on our region. End quote.

Now, researchers don’t say that anyone who comes in contact with a single asbestos fiber will die. The risk of developing cancer is related to a combination of factors. There’s genetic susceptibility, cumulative exposure over time, and the fact that cancer is the result of a process gone wrong, that may not follow in everyone exposed. What scientists say is that there is no safe threshold — no amount they can say is safe.

But Brousseau argues people here know the risk better than anyone. And that they know it’s low enough and manageable enough for the recycling projects to be undertaken safely.

Marc-Alexandre Brousseau, translated in voiceover from French: Knowing that asbestos is carcinogenic — we recognize that — knowing that we know it, we know how to use it. We know how to protect ourselves. We’ll do it adequately for everyone to work safety. But at the same time, why not use this wealth of material that’s at our fingertips?

Emma Jacobs: The province of Quebec and federal government have already put tens of millions of dollars of funding behind reuse projects. Nearly 41 million Canadian into Fournier’s company alone.

But the health concerns also convinced the province to order an environmental review that included a series of public hearings over the course of this past winter.

[Ambient sound from a public hearing]

Where proponents of the projects argued there is a balance to be reached between caution and strict restrictions and the promise of new jobs and clearing up some of this troublesome waste at a profit.

[Jacques Larouche, speaking in French beneath narration]

This is Jacques Larouche of the Thetford Mines region’s economic development organization, speaking before the review panel in February.

Listen, he says, there arrives a moment, Quote: Where we need to reach a compromise between saying, we obviously hope to live in a world where everyone’s safe, there’s no more illness, and we all die of old age, at 100. OK, but it doesn’t work like that. We know it. There’s a moment where people balance things, make an arbitrage with the economic stakes. End quote.

Larouche also told the panel he’s not from this region, that he came here to retire.

And the head of the review team, Joseph Zayed took the opportunity to ask a question.

Joseph Zayed, in French: Par curiosité, vous avez choisi une résidence près des haldes?

Emma Jacobs, translating: Out of curiosity, did you choose a home near the haldes?

Jacques Larouche, in French: Non, non, en campagne.

Emma Jacobs, translating: No, no he says, I live in the country, but my daughter bought a house next to the haldes with her four young children.

Emma Jacobs: Zayed wanted to know if she had done any sort of air quality testing before moving in.

Emma Jacobs: Never, never, Larouche says. And no concerns. Except, he says, she has started to ask herself some questions after hearing people react as if she lives somewhere dangerous. What I’m trying to say, Larouche concludes, is there absolutely needs to be some common sense in this.

But whose common sense?

Paul Demers, the occupational health researcher says in many resource-based economies, you may find a higher tolerance for risk that people have elsewhere.

Paul Demers: From the public health point of view, where you we believe we need to protect the population, it may mean that action is taken even when a community doesn’t necessarily perceive that they want it.  Our job is to protect the public. Not you know, not simply to let people know that there is a risk there, but actually try to remove the risk.

Emma Jacobs: Still, even he says after taking part in the hearings that the answer’s not obvious to him.

Paul Demers: I actually got a much better idea that it’s not that black and white of an issue. Realizing that they’ve got, you know, mountains of asbestos tailings that have a significant proportion of them being asbestos that they don’t know how to get rid of, and are periodically disturbed in one way or another, either through natural forces or through other types of contact with people, let’s say recreational vehicles or things like that.

Emma Jacobs: But if you’re developing a whole new industry involving asbestos, he says, it’s important not to be overconfident that the risk is a thing of the past.

Paul Demers: I’m hoping that we’re kind of leaving that history of being permissive on allowing exposure to asbestos behind in Canada, and certainly making sure that whatever they do with those tailings is done properly. You know, what you want to hear is everybody speaking from the same page of saying, yes, this is the highest priorities is not exposing people while we’re, we’re creating this new industry.

Emma Jacobs: The environmental review panel’s report with recommendations is due in July. But how they’re all implemented will involve political decisions as well as scientific ones. And Canada has seen in the past, when it comes to asbestos, those interests don’t always align.

Lydia Chain: Emma, thanks for joining us and also for bringing us this story.

Emma Jacobs: Thank you for working on it with me.

Lydia Chain: As these towns are exploring the idea of boosting industry using mining waste, what other concerns are they weighing?

Emma Jacobs: So there’s one other set of contaminants that we didn’t really get into here that are on some people’s minds because there was a sort of short-lived attempt to do a similar sort of magnesium recycling a little over a decade ago that failed just cause the market was very different then. And at the time it was observed that there were some chemicals that were released that were also carcinogens that were sort of byproducts of this process. And you know, while Alliance Magnesium would say that the technology has improved, that they’re using a different process, it’s not even an issue to their minds, that’s actually still a real concern among residents in the town of Asbestos. I mentioned this to Paul Demers and he said to me in his opinion, or personally, he would be less worried by these chemicals — they’re called PCBs or dioxins or purines — they make him less nervous because they’re measurable. So you know if they’re there or not, they’re a little easier to detect than asbestos fibers are. That takes, you know, a lot of like counting fibers by hand under a microscope. So not to say that they’re not dangerous and that he would want them out there, but you know there’s some element maybe of the comfort with the carcinogen you know as opposed to others that might be new to a community.

Lydia Chain: This sort of push and pull between public health and industry has been in the news a lot recently due to Covid-19. Was that on your mind at all as you were reporting this piece?

Emma Jacobs: I mean, yes, a fair bit. I think this tension is present in so many different circumstances. It’s just we’re sort of having that conversation more loudly and centrally than we normally do. I think the air pollution in cities, that being sort of something that we as urban residents do accept and don’t think about an awful lot, even though it is, it does cause disease, that’s something people in Asbestos or Thetford Mines, which are, you know, much smaller more rural communities…you know, they’ll say “You’re ok with that, why is it strange to you that we’re comfortable with a higher level of ambient asbestos fibers?” Coronavirus is, you know, a much more dramatic and much more sort of central and all-consuming version of a conversation that’s had a lot in lots of different communities and lots of different contexts about, you know, what is an acceptable level of risk and what are the economic costs or benefits of taking, you know, different approaches or enforcing different types of public health limitations.

Lydia Chain: Emma Jacobs is a multimedia journalist based in Montreal. Her reporting for this story was made possible in part by a fellowship from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources. Thanks also to Bruce Case, Sandrine Rastrello, Dave Davies, Brenna Daldorph, and Bassam Chain. Our theme music is produced by the Undark team, and additional music in today’s episode comes from Kevin MacLeod at Incompetech. I’m your host, Lydia Chain. See you next month.