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Future dims for Canada's asbestos miners. US Environmental Protection Agency considers complete ban on asbestos; Canadians question data on low-level exposure

By Donald L. RheemStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 16, 1986



Asbestos, Quebec

Welcome to Asbestos, Quebec, a town on the move. If parts of the town didn't literally keep shuffling along the rolling country here, it would disappear into the ever-widening, open-pit asbestos mine, or be buried under piles of waste rock. The townspeople don't mind occasionally moving City Hall, because asbestos is the reason for Asbestos' existence. Thousands of asbestos miners form the backbone of the local economy. Here, and in nearby towns like Thetford Mines, mine waste rock forms the foundations for roads, new homes, and schools.

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But the outlook for the town is cloudy. The material asbestos has been widely condemned in the United States as dangerous, and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering banning it completely. Such a move, claim people here, threatens the very existence of their community.

``The ban is based on politics,'' says miner Fernand Trembly through an interpretor. ``People are crazy to be worried about asbestos that is locked in a product.'' Mr. Trembly explained that in his 30 years at the mine the working conditions had improved considerably. ``I can walk through the mine in a dark suit, and you won't see any [asbestos] dust,'' he says with a smile.

David Dull of the EPA views the situation differently. ``There is an enormous amount of evidence available in the scientific literature that shows that asbestos presents a very significant [health] risk . . . both in the workplace and the ambient environment.''

The Asbestos Institute, the focal point of Canada's support of the asbestos industry, agrees on the potential health hazard of uncontrolled asbestos, especially on workers subjected to high and prolonged exposure before current standards were established. Cases of the disease have been documented in studies of textile workers using asbestos fabric, and in wartime shipyard workers who sprayed asbestos as insulation.

It is on the issue of the potential risk from short-term and low-level exposure that the EPA and the Asbestos Institute differ.

The Canadians, and a number of other countries and international organizations, are taking strong measures to control asbestos in the workplace, but are less concerned with exposure in the general environment. Canadian officials claim that there is simply no evidence showing that exposure to low levels of asbestos poses a significant risk. They point out that asbestos is present everywhere in the world environment and that studies conducted on the communities of Asbestos and nearby Thetford Mines indicate no excessive health problems.

The EPA has listened to the Canadians, but US officials remain unconvinced by the merits of their arguments. ``I don't want to suggest that we are indifferent . . . to the concern of the Canadian miners,'' says Mr. Dull, who is deputy director of EPA's Chemical Control Division. ``But our primary duty is to look at the risks presented by asbestos in the US and to make a decision based upon our perception of those risks and whether they can be dealt with at reasonable costs.''