“Where Asbestos Is Just a Fact of Life” is a piece of literary journalism that goes beyond the rhetoric to look at the people affected by it.

John Gray and Stephanie Nolen, “Where Asbestos Is Just a Fact of Life,” ROB Magazine, December 2011

By Ronan O’Beirne

As the public policy debate over asbestos exports reached a fever pitch in 2011, ROB Magazine took a step back from the rhetoric and a closer look at the people these debates actually affect. In doing so, the magazine told a side of the story that is too often buried beneath talking points. 

Like Ian Adams’s “The Forgotten Miners of Newfoundland” more than 40 years earlier, John Gray and Stephanie Nolen’s “Where Asbestos Is Just a Fact of Life” explores Canada’s difficult relationship with its natural resources, which drive the economy in many parts of the country but also harm workers at home and abroad. 

While Gray and Nolen’s reporting on the politics of asbestos is solid, it is merely the backdrop for the more engaging parts of their feature: the people of Thetford Mines and Gujarat. ROB might seem an unusual place to find a work of literary journalism, but there are elements of the genre in this story. If the piece has one weakness, it is that these scenes and characters aren’t given enough space to tell the story in a more personal way.  

The story takes us first to Thetford Mines, a small, rural Quebec town that exists solely because of the asbestos in the ground. In one paragraph, the authors illustrate the peculiar mindset of the place, where asbestos is not seen as a necessary evil, but as a benign fact of life: “Typical is Sylvain Gagné, who simply shrugs at the mention of asbestosis or cancer or mesothelioma. He is sitting on his veranda, facing a hillside of tailings across the street, contentedly eating a plateful of mashed potatoes. If there is any illness in Thetford Mines, it’s because of people drinking too much, he says, particularly young people who can’t get jobs.” We don’t spend much time with Gagné, but this passage is an instructive glimpse into the town’s mindset: literally surrounded by asbestos (“hillside of tailings”), but not bothered by its presence. 

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Though the evidence is stacked against this mentality, Gray and Nolen don’t seek to indict the people who live off asbestos. But they also don’t fall into the familiar trap of “he said, she said” reporting. They make it clear that the medical and scientific communities have decided on the issue: “Chadha also told the Globe and Mail that WHO has set a safe threshold for chrysotile exposure. That statement was contradicted in a rare public rebuke from WHO.” The writers don’t condone what deniers say, but their judgment is measured. Even a comparison to the tobacco industry (“a denial … of some facts that have been around for almost a century”) does not hit as hard as other writers’ appraisals might. 

The authors then introduce us to Durai Swami, who spent most of his life handling asbestos in the Indian state of Gujarat. Unlike the willfully blind people of Thetford Mines, who knew about the health risks of asbestos but claimed that they were unfounded, Swami and his fellow workers in Gujarat “had no information that asbestos presented any risk to their health.” The similarity in their behaviour is striking. One worker says, “We used to make it into balls and throw them at each other when we were fooling around.” Earlier, the authors said that the people of Asbestos treated the substance with the same abandon: “Donald Nicholls smiles: ‘We used to make models all the time.’ And outside, asbestos fibres were a handy ingredient if you wanted to throw a snowball at a scab during a strike.” 

These small details are what make the story, particularly in the section on Gujarat’s workers. The portrait of poor working conditions is a strong rebuttal to the Canadian policy makers and miners who see nothing wrong with exporting dangerous goods overseas, but wouldn’t dare use them at home. Without being too explicit, Gray and Nolen condemn the pro-asbestos lobby simply by describing the reality of asbestos use in India. Workers “leave the factory coated in white dust.” One retired worker “receives a pension of 300 rupees a month—about a fifth of what the family spends on medical care for their breathing problems.” And the son of one worker says he “could see the dust in the water, floating in it.” 

That Gray and Nolen were nominated for National Magazine Awards in five categories (winning gold in business, silver in politics and honourable mentions in health and medicine, investigating reporting and science, technology and the environment) is a testament not only to the quality of their reporting but to the importance of their work. Rather than writing a long piece about the debates over the production, shipping and uses of asbestos, the authors took readers to the places where those debates actually play out. Though the chrysotile industry deserves much scorn for its lobbying, Gray and Nolen are careful not to judge asbestos in harsh terms: the details do that for them.  

[[{“fid”:”3635″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“style”:”width: 90px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: left; height: 90px;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]Toronto journalist Ronan O’Beirne has worked for The Globe and Mail, The Canadian Press and the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

Students and non-students alike may write a Great Canadian Literary Journalism story on a worthy piece of literary journalism/long form/feature writing/reportage. If interested, please contact Bill Reynolds, reynolds@ryerson.ca