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Documents in Quebec History


Last revised:
20 August 2001

Documents sur la grève de l’amiante de 1949 / Documents on the 1949 asbestos strike

Asbestosis (l’amiantose ou l’asbestose)

Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College.

At the heart of the demands of the unions in the Asbestos strike was the question of the elimination of dust at the mines. The mining of several minerals, including asbestos, produces dust to such an extent that the health of the miners can be severely affected. Two diseases are especially associated with dust in the mining process: silicosis and asbestosis.

Asbestosis is a disease of the lungs. As biopsies can rarely be effected on the patient, its diagnosis is difficult as it relies primarily on an analysis of symptoms and other information provided by the patient. The symptoms are shortness of breath, frequent coughing and excreting of liquid from the lungs. As these symptoms are not typical of only asbestosis, and are, in fact, rather common to other diseases, the doctor depends heavily on the fact that the patient has a long and reliable history of exposure to asbestos. Indeed, symptoms of asbestosis may take decades to surface. In fairly advanced stages, the disease is revealed by X-rays; it can also be seen in HRCT (High Resolution Computed Tomography) scans.

The disease is caused by an accumulation of fibres in the lungs. This results from the prolonged breathing of highly concentrated asbestos fibres inevitably found in asbestos mines. As the purpose of the lungs is to make it possible for the blood to pick up oxygen and to eliminate carbon dioxide, anything that interferes with this process will create distress. The presence and concentration of asbestos fibres in the lungs causes a thickening and scarring of the lungs, especially of the lower lobes. By losing its elasticity, with the result that oxygen cannot travel effectively between the alveoli and the blood cells, the affected lungs render breathing difficult, indeed laborious. As the disease progresses – there is no known cure – shortness of breath increases in such a way that even the lightest work load becomes difficult, until such time as the patient becomes completely disabled.

While dangerous and debilitating on its own, asbestosis can lead to further complications. Simple colds and flus become very dangerous and the risk of infection is greatly increased, including the risk of developing tuberculosis, although this is not so common. In its advanced stage, the patient may die from a heart attack caused by the strain placed upon the lungs.

Asbestos workers have increased risks of developing lung tumours (cancer) that are 5 times greater than average. Smoking compounds this problem and multiplies the risks by a further factor of ten. Thus, a smoking asbestos worker has a risk of developing lung cancer that is more than 50 times greater than average.

There was much discussion and debate about the health dangers of asbestos mining during the strike. On the whole, the companies’ position, supported by the provincial government, was to state that important steps had been taken by them over the years, that large investments in safety and health had been effected, that, consequently, the mines had been made safe. Indeed, many steps had been taken, especially by the Johns-Manville Company. It is likely that their mine had the best record of the industry in the area. But, as the report by Burton LeDoux on East-Broughton demonstrated, such was not the case everywhere. It also did not prove conclusively that the situation was tolerable in Asbestos.

In many of its communiqués, the Johns-Manville Company claimed that tests showed that dust was no more prevalent in Asbestos than studies indicated were found in average industrial cities throughout the continent. To my knowledge, they did not provide the data to support their claim. How much dust was there in Asbestos and Thetford Mines? How much dust was there in the mines? What were these studies that provided the comparative measurements? We do not know, and consequently cannot accept the claims of the company.

Further, the company asserted that only two cases of asbestosis had ever been proven for the mine of the Johns-Manville Company. The key word here is proven. What was meant by proven was that only two cases were ever accepted by the provincial compensation board. As the criteria were very restrictive, as there was a clear desire to limit the extent of payments, as it is difficult medically to demonstrate the presence of asbestosis, as it is nearly impossible to attribute solely to asbestos mining the lung problems of the miners, then payments by the compensation board were indeed rare. Clearly, the government preferred that the claims of the miners for asbestosis and silicosis be rejected and that the social problem resulting be resolved by making payments under the "Needy Mothers’" legislation. Thus, a conclusive argument does not emerge from this point.

The authorities and the companies also denied that there was a link between Asbestos mining and other diseases such as tuberculosis and lung cancer. Medical science accepts today that there is such a link. The data used for discussion at the time of the strike dated from four to five years previously. In the context of a yearly improving situation, such data was not compelling. However, an examination of the official provincial government figures for the year of the strike (see Eighth Report of the Department of Health for the Year 1951, 263p.) shows that while the provincial death rate from tuberculosis was 48.8 per 100,000 people in 1949, it was 88.9 in Thetford-Mines. Thus, the rate of tuberculosis infection was 82% higher in Thetford Mines that in the rest of the province. Furthermore, the Report also shows that of the 33 cities and towns of 5,000 people or more of Quebec (their average death rate from tuberculosis being 46.0 per 100,000), Thetford Mines had the highest death rate from tuberculosis. This was the case despite the fact that the death rate in Thetford Mines was 13.6% lower than the provincial average. The Report did not distinguish between the various forms of cancer so that it is not possible to determine if there was a higher incidence of lung cancer in Thetford Mines than in the other cites or towns of the province. The incidence of heart disease in Thetford Mines was lower than the average of the other towns or cities by 29.4%.

Given these health dangers associated with asbestos, one is not surprised to find that its use has been outlawed in many jurisdictions throughout the world. It appears that safer forms and process of use of asbestos are available today. But such was not the case in 1949 when the asbestos strike took place.

Asbestosis, and generally the risks associated with asbestos, played an important role in giving the striking miners of 1949 a strong sense of grievance and a righteousness about their cause they might not otherwise have had. When, in January of 1949, Burton LeDoux wrote his extensive report in Le Devoir on the dust problem at the mine of East Broughton (which report was published and distributed extensively in the form of a 40 page brochure – available both in English and in French), he made sure that the issue of Asbestosis would remain at the heart of the public discussions of the strike even while it appears to have played only a peripheral role in the negotiations between the union and the companies. Ultimately, the discussion of asbestosis during the strike made the disease a household word in Quebec and largely gained the support of public opinion in Quebec for the workers of the asbestos mines of the province. This was essential for the workers to go through the long ordeal of their strike.

For further information, consult the web site of the American Lung Association. The Loi sur l’indemnisation des victimes d’amiantose ou de silicose dans les mines et carrières du Québec is found at the CSST web site. A text, in French, on asbestosis is also published in the collection of documents at the site.

© 2001 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College