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The Daily Show visits Asbestos, Que: 'In English it means slow, hacking death'

The town of Asbestos, Que., was the object of ridicule on one of the world's most popular comedy programs Thursday night.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart produced a segment that began with lighthearted mockery and ended with moral indignation over the town's attachment to the asbestos industry.

It interviewed local officials who said chrysotile asbestos is perfectly safe if handled properly - then spoke with a Canadian Medical Association doctor who called the industry a national embarrassment.

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The piece saved its most scathing bits for last.

It reminded people that asbestos is blamed for 100,000 deaths a year and that there's little evidence the product is handled safely in India, the prime market for Quebec asbestos.

It ran CBC images of Indian workers tossing around the substance without any precautions. That's when the comedian-reporter on the story toughened his tone.

Reporter Aasif Mandvi, who was born in Mumbai, asked the president of an asbestos mine: "Have you ever been to India? … Do you think in India people are following the regulations?"

He then lures the asbestos executive, Bernard Coulombe, into a tongue-in-cheek conversation about Indians. Mr. Coulombe quips that Indian workers can handle a lot: "Maybe they're used to the pollution. . . It's like antibiotics. They have natural antibodies," the businessman says.

Mr. Mandvi plays a long for a bit - smiling and joking that Indians must be tougher than westerners.

Then he tears into the businessman. "That's really f---ed up, man," Mr. Mandvi says. "I mean, selling them things that are going to kill them. I mean, that's my family over there."

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He adds: "What's the French word for douchebag?"

Quebec holds the last of Canada's remaining asbestos mines. Jean Charest's government recently announced a $58-million loan guarantee to keep one of them, the Jeffrey Mine, open. Mr. Coulombe is president of that operation.

As the segment ended, Mr. Stewart chuckled as he cut to commercial.

It's wasn't the first time the town was fodder for foreign comedians. An Australian TV show once held a contest for advertising professionals to try making tourists want to visit the place. The segment on Mr. Stewart's show began with a similarly light tone.

The studio audience laughed as Mr. Mandvi poked fun at the town's name at the start of the five-minute piece. His first exchange with Mr. Coulombe played on linguistic misunderstandings.

"Does Asbestos mean something different in French than it does in English?" he asked Mr. Coulombe. "Because in English it means slow, hacking death."

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A wide-eyed Mr. Coulombe replies: "Yeah? It means that?"

The Daily Show attracts well over one million TV viewers per night and its segments regularly go viral on the Internet, as well.

Neither town nor mine officials were immediately available to comment on the segment. However, the Quebec government said it believed safety precautions were constantly improving.

Economic Development Minister Clement Gignac noted that India's Supreme Court has demanded that the country's government better regulate the industry.

He says he has travelled to India with representatives of the provincial workplace-safety board to share best practices with India's minister responsible for mining.

"It's just like chemical products - we don't pretend they have no risk at all," Mr. Gignac told a news conference in Quebec City.

"They have risks. But if we go in a safe way, with the best practices, we can minimize risks. … One death is one death too many - whether it's in Quebec, India or Indonesia."

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