Review of Van Horssen, A Town Called Asbestos

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Jessica van Horssen, A Town Called Asbestos: Environmental Contamination, Health, and Resilience in a Resource Community. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016. 228pp, ISBN 9780774828420

Reviewed by Michael Egan.

Canadians have yet to reckon with their toxic trespasses in any meaningful way on the national stage. As with many other national embarrassments, Canadian toxic legacies are swept under the carpet, ignored in the hope that they might go away. More than forty years later, a few hapless court rulings constitute the lone resolution to the mercury contamination tragedy that struck the aboriginal reservation at Grassy Narrows, called by one media outlet in 1973, “genocide by neglect.” Similarly, Canada is historically among the world’s leaders in the production and sale of asbestos. Throughout the twentieth century, asbestos was embraced as an effective fire retardant. It also emerged as a dangerous environmental pollutant. When we talk about pollution, the horrors are rarely only inflicted on the “out-there” environment. Everything is connected to everything else. Through air, soil, and water, the most concerning environmental contaminations occur in human bodies, posing health problems. In the case of asbestos, mesothelioma—an especially pernicious form of cancer—has been undeniably linked to asbestos exposure, as the mineral’s infinitely small fibrous crystals line the tissue of the lungs or the abdomen. Pollution stories intertwine the social, the cultural, the political, the economic, and the environmental.

Jessica van Horssen’s book on the town of Asbestos, in Montreal’s eastern townships, makes this case. She links three bodies—geographic bodies, human bodies, and the body politic—to tell the story of another long-ignored history of Canadian labour and industrial pollution. As the book title might suggest, town and industry reinforced one another. Even when town and industry don’t share the same name, though, resource communities are intimately—and, frequently, devastatingly—connected to the land and its exploitation. Throughout the twentieth century the economic benefits of mining outweighed human health risks. Labourers’ health was a small price to pay for the profits the wonder material reaped. In some sense, then, van Horssen’s story is an historical investigation of the costs and benefits associated with this brand of industrial production. That those valuations should change over time reflect changing economies, body politics, and environmental awarenesses. Also changing over time was the size of the Jeffrey Mine, the chasm of which expanded over the course of the twentieth century.

A Town Called Asbestos is really more about Asbestos than it is about asbestos. True: the two are inextricably linked, but where Johns-Manville, the mine’s operator declared bankruptcy in 1983, the town persisted. The more recent story of Asbestos is one of economic challenges, survival, and resilience. Which is to say that stories of people and stories of contamination do not conclude in the same ways and at the same times as stories of industries. Van Horssen does a fine job of reminding the reader of the power of place and the people who embody it.

In closing, this is a history that is far from behind us. The Globe and Mail recently published data indicating that asbestos is Canada’s greatest workplace killer. There is currently a push from within the federal Liberal Party to ban asbestos in Canada. Canada lags behind most of the developed world, which has already banned asbestos. But Canadians have yet to reckon with their toxic trespasses and the recognition that technology and policy changes influence real people in real places. History can most certainly inform the present—and help shape the future. In the context of environmental legacies and public health, van Horssen’s book makes an important contribution to our ongoing conversation about asbestos, policy, and the industrial risks posed by not learning from our toxic histories.

Editor’s note: for more on Jessica van Horssen’s book, see Episode 55 of the Nature’s Past podcast: Asbestos Mining and Environmental Health.

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Michael Egan

Michael Egan is an associate professor and University Teaching Fellow in the History Department at McMaster University. His current teaching and (SSHRC-funded) research revolves around the history of the future and the construction of “modern arks” as a means of insulating against future catastrophes.

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