This word seems to have a certain crystalline charisma, to the extent that it may even dazzle the eyes and misrepresent itself to you. Are you sure you have read it correctly? You may have read the last four letters as lite. But they are tile. This word has more than one thing in common with chrysalid, but among those is not the order of liquid and stop in the ending.
And this word is not a lady’s name, not like Charys or Crystal. Nor is it a cool beverage – that’s Crystal Lite. The chrys in it is not from chrism or related words; this word is not “anointed”. It is, rather, the chrys in chrysanthemum or, as I have said, chrysalis: from Greek χρῡσός chrusos “gold”. And the tile? From Greek τίλος tilos “shred, fibre”.
Is this a word for spun gold, or a gold spinner? Not exactly, but in a way. Just as one may spin straw into gold, one may spin a simple mineral into something worth gold. Chrysotile is the name of a mineral of which Canada happens to have a fair bit. And that mineral, which is about has hard as your fingernail, can be processed into its fibres, which can be spun into thread and woven into cloth. They have remarkable insulating properties. You might see this rock as a sort of chrysalis for the butterfly that is this marvellous fibre.
But you might look again at the butterfly and wonder whether it is not, rather, a serpent. And I say this not just because chrysotile is a variety of the mineral called serpentine. I say it because the marvellous fibre that has spun so much gold for so many is the one we call asbestos.
A terrible beauty indeed. Our anointed one has apostatized. Those fibres, so resilient, can lodge themselves in your lungs and cause cancer and other diseases. Chrysotile is not the only mineral from which asbestos is made, however, and this fact has left a small opening for those who still see gold in it. Does chrysotile asbestos in specific cause asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer? The statistics often do not separate out the different sorts of asbestos. Is it possible that chrysotile is a butterfly among moths?
According to the World Health Organization and the International Agency for Research on Cancer, no: all forms of asbestos are dangerous carcinogens. A recent article in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives (quoted in “Can asbestos be used ‘safely’?” by Julia Belluz at Macleans.ca) declared, “Numerous epidemiologic studies, case reports, controlled animal experiments, and toxicological studies refute the assertion that chrysotile is safe.… These studies demonstrate that the so-called controlled use of asbestos is a fallacy.”
And yet the glitter of chrysotile still dazzles some eyes. Last week, the golden tongue of Dimitri Soudas, communications director for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, spun the following yarn: “All scientific reviews clearly confirm that chrysotile fibres can be used safely under controlled conditions.” I suppose if by “controlled conditions” he means that all who will come anywhere near the stuff are in hazmat suits with suitable breathing apparatus, there is a case to be made (though not one for his moral fibre). But that statement seems to me to have that kind of lapidary quality, that attractive crystallinity, that dazzles the eyes, and leads you to expect a beautiful butterfly when in fact you are holding not a chrysalis but a serpent’s egg.