It has become a matter of pure economics for a city in Quebec named “Asbestos.”
For most in the English speaking world, the name is synonymous with a toxic substance known to cause the deadly cancer mesothelioma.
The tiny hamlet — less than two hours northeast of Montreal with a population under 8,000 — finds itself losing new business simply because of its moniker.
“If we want to go further in terms of economic development, then we don’t have the choice,” said Mayor Hugues Grimard.
Grimard says he knows of at least four businesses who wanted to move their operations to the area but declined after their investors learned the city’s name.
Name Garnered From Longtime Mining Operations
At one time in history, the city bore the name Asbestos proudly as home to the Jeffrey Mine, which boasted the fame as the largest asbestos mine in the world. It was also the town’s largest employer, with 2,000 local workers at its pinnacle.
Named after a farmer, W.H. Jeffrey, who made the initial investment to start the mine in the 1890s, the mine grew to over a mile wide, almost 400 yards deep, and over two square miles in total area. These dimensions made it the largest open-pit asbestos mine in the Western hemisphere.
Asbestos’ Link to Disease Repels People
Grimard says now just hearing the name turns people off.
“I have a local development agent who went to Ohio and tried to give his business card, and people actually didn’t even want to take the card,” he said.
Once thought of as a miracle substance with its natural fireproofing properties, asbestos was used widely in building materials, in the military, and in automobile parts throughout the world.
Eventually, evidence surfaced that those exposed to the naturally-occurring mineral were developing lung-related diseases from chronic lung inflammation called asbestosis to fatal pleural cavity cancers.
By the 1970s, the alarm sounded louder as a definitive link was discovered between asbestos exposure and cancer, drastically reducing the demand for the substance.
Although diminishing steadily through the years, the Jeffrey Mine finally closed operations permanently in 2011.
Officials Finally Ready to Close Doors on the Past
City officials considered a name change a decade ago, but residents weren’t ready to deny their history. Now, Grimard says the negative connotation hinders the community’s future.
Ironically, the town rests in the Canadian province of French-speaking Quebec where asbestos is translated “amiante,” which does not bear the same negative overtones as the English word.
Regardless, the city council issued a press release stating the town’s name is serving as a barrier to developing economic relations abroad.
Still, officials recognize the need to remain sensitive to those born and raised in the area who feel strong ties to the name.
“City council remains aware that the history of Asbestos and its heritage are very dear to everyone. This is why these elements will be taken into account throughout the process,” noted city officials in a press release.
As a result, Grimard and the city council hail local residents to contribute ideas to the name change. As yet no suggestions have been made public, but the city leaders plan to make an announcement sometime this year with the new name their historic community will bear as they begin the new decade.