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Article about a town called Asbestos in Quebec, Canada

When we hear the word asbestos, we tend to think about a substance that is deadly and something that is thankfully a thing of the past. However, Asbestos was so widely used during the 20th century and up until the 1970s, when public recognition of the health hazards of asbestos dust led to its prohibition in mainstream construction and fireproofing in most countries around the world. Despite the widespread ban, and in part because the consequences of exposure can take many decades to become evident, at least 100,000 people are thought to die each year from diseases related to asbestos exposure.

Asbestos was such an effective and sought after mined product, with so many uses, at least a couple of places were given names to celebrate the fact, one is Canada and one in Russia.

Asbestos: A Canadian town

Asbestos is a town in the eastern region of Quebec, Canada, situated on the Nicolet River. Asbestos is now the seat of Les Sources Regional County Municipality, but was formerly known as the Asbestos Regional County Municipality. The town covers an area of eleven and a half square miles, including land acquired due to the merger of the City of Asbestos with the Municipality of Trois-Lacs in 1999.

A 2011 census determined that 7,096 people lived in the town of Asbestos. It is the site of the Jeffrey mine, which used to be the worlds largest asbestos mine, which has long been the towns biggest employer, and of the since defunct Magnola magnesium refinery. It was the site of the famous Asbestos strike. The Asbestos strike of 1949, based in and around Asbestos, Quebec, was a four month labour dispute by asbestos miners. This strike was one of the most violent and bitter labour disputes in Quebec and Canadian history, the strike led to massive upheaval in Quebec society. The strike was led by Jean Marchand, a labour unionist. Journalist Gerard Pelletier and future Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, then a journalist, also played significant roles. Popular opinion for most of the strike was broadly supportive of the striking workers. This support, beyond its moral value, manifested itself through monetary support and the supply of provisions. It is likely that the strike would have quickly failed had it not been for the establishment of this kind of support.

Owing to the negative reputation afforded to the asbestos mineral, lengthy discussions have taken place over recent years as to whether the town should change its name to something without the negative connotations. A municipal referendum held in October 2020 selected the new name Val-des-Sources, with over half the voters keen to see a change,. Any new name will still require the approval of the provincial government.

In the latter half of 2011, the towns two remaining asbestos mines, Lac d’Amiante du Canada and the Jeffrey mine, ceased all operations. In June 2012, a fifty eight million dollar loan was promised by the Quebec government to restart and operate the Jeffrey mine for the next twenty years. However, in September 2012, before the loan funds were made available, a new political party defeated the incumbent party in the Quebec provincial election. The new party followed through with an election promise to halt asbestos mining and to cancel the loan, and put funding toward economic diversification in the area instead.

Asbestos: What’s in a name?

The often heated debate surrounding the name of the town of Asbestos has raged on for several years, particularly since the marked decline in asbestos mining. Many local residents and politicians in the area have proposed changing the towns name because of its negative connotations; however, many of the proposals failed, with people involved in the debate noting that because the town is predominantly fFrench speaking and the mineral asbestos is referred to as amiante rather than asbestos in French, people generally do not associate the towns name with the negativity associated with the mineral itself.

A name change plan was approved by the municipal council in 2019, with the new name chosen by a public poll. In 2020, the mayor of the town announced that residents would be able to vote to rename the town to either Apalone, Jeffrey, Phenix or Trois-Lacs. The choices were not at all popular with many residents, and more names were added to the list as a result of the many objections. The referendum was held later in the year to allow the townspeople to choose between six names, such as L’Azur-des-Cantons, Jeffrey-sur-le-Lac, Larochelle, Trois-Lacs, Val-des-Sources, or Phenix. The referendum results were announced late in 2020. Over half the voters chose the name Val-des-Sources in the third round of a preferential ballot. Some residents who remain opposed to the name change have organised a petition drive calling on the powers governing to deny its approval, on the grounds that not enough of the towns residents participated in the referendum, and that the referendum did not include any option to express a preference for maintaining the existing name of Asbestos.

Asbest: The Russian town

Asbest is a town in Sverdlovsk Oblast, Russia, located on the Bolshoy Reft River on the eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains. The town was was previously known as Kudelka, but changed to Asbest in 1928.

The economy of Asbest

The modern day Asbest is a large industrial center. Joint stock company Uralasbest is the main industrial business interest. The chrysotile asbestos mine adjacent to the town is the subject of published scientific investigations about its detrimental health impact on the local population and is said to be the worlds largest. The adjacent open pit Uralasbest mine is believed to be seven miles long, up to one and a half miles wide and more than one thousand feet deep, this would make it nearly half the size of Manhattan in New York.

Asbestos, bricks, porcelain, furniture, metal constructions, and other products are produced in the town of Asbest.

History of Asbest

Interestingly an engineer with extensive experience with asbestos in Quebec, where the town of Asbestos is situated in Canada, worked in Asbest in 1929, and again in 1930. His memoir of his times there, Working for the Soviets; an American engineer in Russia, was published in 1932.

Following World War II, the Soviet Union operated prisoner of war camps near Asbest. In addition, from May 1950 until April 1953, up to 7,700 inmates were imprisoned in the Bazhenovsky ITL gulag. Inmates had to work for the local asbestos industry, more than 15,000 died due to the conditions, including asbestos related diseases such as Mesothelioma.

So although much of the world has moved away from asbestos, recognising the naturally occuring mineral as a deadly material, its legacy lives on in some parts of the world.

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