Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that can be pulled into a fluffy consistency. Asbestos fibers are soft and flexible yet resistant to heat, electricity and corrosion. These qualities make the mineral useful, but they also make asbestos exposure highly toxic.
Pure asbestos is an effective insulator, and it can be used in cloth, paper, cement, plastic and other materials to make them stronger. But when someone inhales or ingests asbestos dust, the mineral fibers can become forever trapped in their body.
Over decades, trapped asbestos fibers can cause inflammation, scarring and eventually genetic damage to the body’s cells. A rare and aggressive cancer called mesothelioma is almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure. Asbestos also causes other forms of cancer as well as progressive lung disease.
Types of Asbestos
Asbestos is not a single mineral — rather, it refers to a group of silicate minerals that share the same fibrous nature. In layman’s terms, it is often called “white asbestos” (chrysotile), the rarer “blue asbestos” (crocidolite) and “brown asbestos” (amosite).
Before 1990, asbestos was commonly used for insulating buildings and homes against cold weather and noise. It was also used for fireproofing.
Industry, construction and commercial sectors have used asbestos in products like:
- cement and plaster
- industrial furnaces and heating systems
- building insulation
- floor and ceiling tiles
- house siding
- car and truck brake pads
- vehicle transmission components, such as clutches
Health risks of exposure
Breathing in asbestos fibres can cause cancer and other diseases, such as:
- a scarring of the lungs, which makes it difficult to breathe
- a rare cancer of the lining of the chest or abdominal cavity
- lung cancer
- smoking can greatly increase this risk
There are no significant health risks if materials containing asbestos in your home are:
- tightly bound in products and are in good condition
- sealed behind walls and floorboards
- isolated in an attic
- left undisturbed
How you can be exposed
You can be exposed to asbestos when a home or building is being renovated or demolished. Small asbestos fibres can be released into the air when:
- disturbing or removing insulation that contains asbestos, including insulation around hot water pipes and tanks
- removing or disturbing roofing shingles and felt or siding containing asbestos
- sanding, breaking apart or scraping vinyl asbestos floor tiles
- breaking apart soundproofing ceiling tiles containing asbestos
- sanding or disturbing plaster containing asbestos, including acoustical plaster
- sawing, drilling or smoothing rough edges of asbestos materials
- sanding or scraping older surface treatments containing asbestos, such as:
- roofing compounds like tar paper
Some car parts also contain asbestos. In some cases, you can be exposed to asbestos dust when changing your brakes or replacing a transmission clutch.
How to reduce your risk of exposure
You can reduce your risk of exposure in the home, when doing car maintenance or while at work.
In the home
You can reduce your risk of exposure by hiring a professional to test for asbestos before doing any:
- renovations or remodelling
If asbestos is found, hire a qualified asbestos removal specialist to get rid of it before beginning work. Avoid disturbing asbestos materials yourself. This increases the risk to your health and your family’s health. Check with your provincial and territorial workplace safety authorities to find out the qualifications or certifications needed in your area.
If you have vermiculite-based insulation in your attic, it may contain asbestos. To avoid exposure to asbestos fibres, do not disturb vermiculite-based attic insulation in any way or attempt to remove it yourself. Make sure:
- children are not allowed in the attic
- the attic is not used for storage or any other use
- professionals that are trained to handle asbestos are hired if you plan to remodel or renovate
- all cracks and holes in the ceiling of the rooms below the insulation are sealed
- caulking around light fixtures and the attic hatch is applied to prevent insulation from falling through
If you have vermiculite-based insulation in your attic, some may have fallen inside your walls over time. Therefore, you should seal cracks and holes with caulking around:
- window and door frames
- along baseboards
- around electrical outlets
When doing car maintenance
Because asbestos can also be found in some brake and transmission parts, you can reduce your risk of exposure by:
- calling the auto parts supplier to check if these parts contain asbestos before doing any work yourself
- having your brakes or clutch serviced at a commercial automotive shop
While at work
If you work in maintenance or construction, find out if asbestos is present in your work area. If you are unsure, check with a qualified asbestos removal specialist.
When handling insulation or other building materials that may contain asbestos, avoid creating dust from:
Any damage to materials containing asbestos should be reported to the appropriate authority, such as your Occupational Health and Safety Manager.
If asbestos is found while renovating in the workplace, hire a qualified asbestos removal specialist to get rid of it before beginning work. Avoid disturbing asbestos materials yourself. This increases the risk to your health and the health of others. Check with your federal, provincial or territorial workplace safety authority to find out the qualifications or certifications needed in your area.
Public and commercial building owners should keep an inventory of asbestos-containing materials to inform tenants, authorities and contractors.
If you are an auto mechanic, check with your parts supplier to find out if:
- any brake pads or transmission parts you are working with contain asbestos
- if you are unsure, check with your federal, provincial or territorial workplace safety authority for precautions you should take
Federal, provincial and territorial occupational health and safety agencies are responsible for setting workplace limits for exposure to hazardous substances. Their legislation also requires employers to inform and train their workers on the safe use of such products.
How the Government protects you from exposure
The Government of Canada recognizes that breathing in asbestos fibres can cause cancer and other diseases. We help protect Canadians from asbestos exposure by:
- Prohibiting the import, sale and use of asbestos, and the import, sale, use and manufacture of asbestos products, through the Prohibition of Asbestos and Products Containing Asbestos Regulations under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA 1999)
- Setting limits for occupational exposure to asbestos in federal workplaces through the Canada Occupational Health and Safety Regulations, under the Canada Labour Code
- Regulating possible releases of asbestos into the environment through the Asbestos Mines and Mills Release Regulations under CEPA 1999
- Maintaining a national inventory of asbestos in federal buildings
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