Recently, the residents of Asbestos, a town in Quebec, Canada, chose a new identity. Rather than allowing their town to continue being named after the hazardous mineral formerly mined there, they have chosen a free name from such negative connotations. Beginning in December, their town will be known as Val-des-Sources, which means ‘valley of the springs’ in French.
Asbestos was once home to the Jeffrey Mine, which had been the largest chrysotile asbestos mine in the world. According to a report published by National Public Radio, the town developed around the mine in the late 1800s. It was given its name by the Royal Mail, which began simply referring to it as the mineral mined there.
Perceptions of asbestos weren’t always negative
Before people knew how hazardous asbestos is, this mineral was added to a variety of products, such as insulation, cement, tiles, textiles and others. The Jeffrey Mine provided jobs for community members while extracting a substance that was in high demand. When asbestos was considered a miracle mineral, having a town that shared its name was reportedly a source of pride for residents.
For many years, a significant amount of asbestos imported into the United States came from Canada. According to the United States Geological Survey, Canadian asbestos made up 90% of the asbestos imported into the United States between 2006 and 2009. However, the U.S. has not imported asbestos from Canada since 2011.
Public opinion can change over time
The Jeffrey Mine closed in 2011 and Canada has banned all asbestos-containing products since 2018. Today the word asbestos is associated with the mineral’s toxicity and aggressive diseases like asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer.
The average person’s perception of asbestos has changed significantly over the last few decades as people worldwide have learned more about its cancer-causing properties. Now, the name of the town scares some people who are not from the area. Some outsiders have reportedly been too afraid to accept business cards or mail that lists the town’s name on it.
Media reports indicate the town’s current name has made it especially difficult to attract businesses and investors. Because of reactions like these, town leaders reportedly felt the name must be changed to help provide better opportunities for future generations of residents.
In William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the female protagonist famously questioned, “What’s in a name?” It turns out that there can be quite a lot in a name. As the people of Asbestos have learned, a name can honor the past, complicate the present or provide hope for the future.