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Americans aren't the only ones struggling with asbestos

Asbestos used to be considered a miracle mineral. Now we know it’s a killer. Because asbestos fibers are strong and naturally resist heat and fire, manufacturers used to build them into all kinds of materials. At least, until we learned those materials were killing us.

Now, most nations have stopped mining asbestos. Many have banned it. And people everywhere find themselves struggling with the asbestos already built into buildings, cars, furnaces, ceiling tiles and other materials. Some must even grapple with their historical ties to the mineral.

The unusual plight of Asbestos, Quebec

Given how deadly asbestos can be, you might think no one would want to live in a town named after it. But that’s precisely the issue facing the residents of Asbestos, Quebec.

As CNN recently reported, the city of 7,000 was named long ago after its asbestos mine—formerly the world’s largest. Presumably, this was when people knew less about the dangers the mineral presented. But the city’s residents are now fully aware of all the deaths the mineral has caused, and they’re looking at options to rename their city.

Interestingly, many Asbestos residents have resisted the change. This is because the other options haven’t drawn a lot of love, either:

  • “Jeffrey” would rename the city after the founder of the asbestos mine. The residents complain that naming the town Jeffrey would swap the name of the mineral for the name of the person who benefitted most from its use.
  • “Trois-Lacs” would like the city more strongly to a nearby lake with the same name. However, CNN reports that the lake has a reputation as “one of the worst in Quebec.” As a result, many of the residents find the choice wholly unappealing.
  • “Phénix” translates to “Phoenix” in English and suggests rebirth. It may be an appropriate name for a city looking to shed its ties to a deadly mineral, but it hasn’t caught on.
  • “Apalone” has more of a local tie than Phénix. It’s the name of a soft-backed, indigenous turtle. But it hasn’t caught on any more than Phénix.

Since the town’s residents haven’t eagerly latched onto any of the available options, many feel they should stick with the existing name. The fact their town is named Asbestos may hurt their tourism and business options, but the town isn’t actively contributing to any more deaths. The mine has shut down, and Canada banned asbestos in 2018.

Which is the worse asbestos legacy?

It may be startling to think that anyone would resist renaming a town named Asbestos. But the real shock should be that anyone continues to use the substance. In the United States, we still struggle with our legacy of asbestos use, and we struggle with it in ways that are far more material than city names.

The United States has tried to ban asbestos, but industry heads pushed back against an early ban. They won a reprieve, and now the United States has only a partial ban. And because manufacturers continued to use asbestos in their materials long after they knew the risks, the United States needs strict guidelines for safely removing the material. The United States asbestos legacy isn’t one of an unfortunate name; it’s one of the thousands of painful deaths.

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