The sales pitch that chrysotile asbestos is safe when handled properly sounds even more ludicrous when an unwitting Canadian asbestos mine owner tries to convince a skeptical comedian of its merits. In a recent segment, Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show served up the town of Asbestos, Quebec to international ridicule for continuing to mine and export the deadly mineral fiber to developing countries.
Exposure to asbestos, once widely used in building materials, causes an estimated 100,000 people a year worldwide to die of respiratory diseases including mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer of the lining of the lungs and abdomen. Approximately, 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed each year in the U.S. Most are workers who inhaled asbestos fibers in the workplace or Navy veterans exposed to asbestos in ships.
Speaking to The Daily Show, George Gagne, manager of the town of Asbestos, acknowledges that some nations have banned asbestos because it causes mesothelioma. But in the town of Asbestos, town officials and economic boosters encourage more consumption of asbestos to help the local economy.
Bernard Coulombe, head of the Jeffrey Mine, one of Canada’s last remaining asbestos mine, repeats that canard that chrysotile is safe and that industries in India handle asbestos fiber safely. Never mind the scenes from the Canadian Broadcasting Company asbestos documentary showing Indian workers wearing only bandanas tossing bales of asbestos fiber, as if working in a snowstorm. “India is buying 400,000 tons of fiber a year,” Coulombe tells The Daily Show. “In India, they are used to pollution.”
Coulombe still doesn’t realize that he is speaking to a comedian even when the Daily Show interviewer asks, “Does asbestos mean something different in French than in English because in English it means slow, hacking death?”
Only Dr. Matthew Stanbrook, deputy director of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, is clear eyed about the harm asbestos causes. Stanbrook tells The Daily Show that chrysotile asbestos causes cancer and the asbestos mine should be shut down rather than given an extended operating lease with new government subsidies. “As a Canadian, I’m embarrassed that we are sending abroad this product that we’ve all learned not to use here because it’s too dangerous,” Stanbrook says.