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Growing Up In Canada’s ‘Chemical Valley’ Convinced Me We Need to Ban Asbestos

The toxic fiber casts a dark shadow.
Image: Flickr/Perry Quan

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the Liberal government's first public commitment to place a ban on importing asbestos in Canada at a trade union conference on Tuesday.

Here's why that's important: the central public park in my hometown of Sarnia, Ontario has been closed for years after a black slurry of cancer-causing chemicals, including asbestos, bubbled to the surface. I played in that park's dirt and grass as a kid.


Sarnia has been a toxic dumping ground for generations. Over the last century, the city has sustained itself with the riches emanating from the many oil refineries and manufacturing plants it hosts (Shell, Enbridge, Dow, they're all there), and transformed itself into a remarkably hermetic system.

This is not an unfruitful situation. Although Sarnia has its share of poverty, and most folks are working people who fall into a middle-to-lower income bracket, my family was able to help send me to university with plant money. Sarnia also hosts well-to-do families who dock their big boats in the crystal-clear waters of Lake Huron.

But there is a hidden killer nestled inside this idyllic, blue-collar beach town. As numerous investigations have revealed, Sarnia hosts a persistent health crisis that has sent scores of workers to the morgue after losing long battles to cancers like mesothelioma, caused almost exclusively by exposure to asbestos.

A town doesn't get the moniker "Chemical Valley" without some darkness.

Asbestos. To me, the word pins down some amorphous, unnameable terror with a stake. My father has worked in Sarnia's oil refineries for a good chunk of his life. My family also has a history of cancer. The black ooze that shut down my youthful stomping ground makes me think of the poisons that must have entered my father's body over the years, and which may eventually kill him, like it's killed so many others in Sarnia.

As for whether Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley supports Trudeau's plan to ban asbestos or not, his answer to Motherboard over email was simple: "Yes." In fact, he's been very vocal about this.

At one point, Canada one of the world's leading producers of asbestos. In 2011, the two Quebec mines still making the stuff were closed down. Now, Canada doesn't produce or export any asbestos, but it still imports the fiber for construction materials and auto parts, the CBC notes. Europe, Australia, and Japan have all banned asbestos. The US remains an outlier.

"We know that its impact on workers far outweighs any benefits that it might provide," Trudeau said in response to a question on Tuesday. I don't think I've ever agreed with our fresh-faced prime minister more strongly.

I only hope that he feels the weight of those words every bit as viscerally as I do.