It's Your Health
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Asbestos poses health risks only when fibres are present in the air you breathe. There are no significant health risks if asbestos fibres stay enclosed or tightly bound in a product (for example in asbestos siding or asbestos floor tiles).
Asbestos is the generic name for a variety of fibrous minerals found naturally in rock formations around the world. Asbestos fibres are strong, durable, and do not burn. This is why asbestos was widely used by industry, mainly in construction and friction materials.
Commercial asbestos fibres belong in two broad mineralogical groups:
This type of asbestos fibre:
This type of asbestos fibre:
The commercial use of amphibole asbestos has been almost completely discontinued.
One of the main problems with asbestos now comes from sprayed or "friable" (easily broken up) asbestos used in buildings until the 1970s. Construction workers, tradespeople and other building maintenance workers may be exposed to very high concentrations of asbestos fibres during renovations and repairs to older buildings. The environment and work methods of these occupations are more difficult to control than fixed workplaces. However, most tradespeople are trained in the proper handling of materials that contain asbestos.
There are also risks for workers in industries that produce and use asbestos, like mining and milling, and manufacturing of asbestos-containing products. In the past, workers in these industries were exposed to 100 - 1,000 times more asbestos than today's workers. Now, strict standards limit workers' exposure. The ban or discontinuance of most uses of asbestos has reduced the risks.
There are very low levels of asbestos fibres in water and air. The fibres come from both natural and man-made sources.
The levels in large cities are hundreds of times lower than levels accepted in today's asbestos-related jobs. Levels in rural areas are lower than city levels. With such low exposure, environmental risks are not a concern.
Some raw water supplies may contain high levels of chrysotile asbestos fibres. This is a result of natural erosion. Conventional water treatment methods can substantially reduce asbestos levels. There is no clear evidence that chrysotile fibres are a health hazard when swallowed.
Because it is a valuable reinforcing, insulating, and fire-proofing material, asbestos was used widely in construction materials, like:
These products do not release significant amounts of fibres under normal use. However, you can release fibres if you cut or damage these products.
Levels of asbestos fibres in the air in buildings are usually about the same as in the air outside and are not a significant risk. But levels may be higher if you disturb asbestos materials that are friable (easily broken up).
There is also concern about vermiculite insulation, which may contain small amounts of amphibole asbestos, primarily tremolite or actinolite. The amphibole fibres may cause health risks if disturbed. But there is currently no evidence of risk to your health if the insulation is:
The amount of asbestos in a product does not indicate its health risk. If the asbestos fibres stay enclosed or tightly bound in a product, there is no significant health risk.
Asbestos poses health risks only when fibres are present in the air you breathe. How exposure to asbestos can affect you depends on:
When inhaled in significant quantities, asbestos fibres can cause:
There is also evidence that asbestos can cause cancer of the pharynx and stomach. The link between exposure to asbestos and other types of cancers is less clear.
Smoking, combined with inhaled asbestos, greatly increases the risk of lung cancer.
Construction and maintenance workers should:
Public and commercial building owners should:
But remember, you can't always tell just by looking at a material. If in doubt, have it analyzed by a qualified professional. You can find one by looking up experts in "asbestos abatement /removal."
If you must handle small amounts of damaged materials that contain asbestos, follow these steps:
The Government of Canada has put controls on asbestos to help protect the health of Canadians. For example:
Also, Health Canada has encouraged provincial occupational health authorities to adopt stringent workplace exposure limits for asbestos.
You can also call toll free at 1-866-225-0709 or TTY at 1-800-267-1245*
Updated: November 2012
Original: November 2001
ęHer Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Health, 2012
Catalogue # H13-7/121-2012E-PDF
ISBN # 978-1-100-20762-9