Pollution & air quality
Indoor air quality
Asbestos and your health
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a natural fibrous mineral that is heat resistant, chemical resistant and hard to break down. Asbestos has been used for thousands of years in many different products. Up until the 1980s, asbestos was used widely in household and industrial products sold in Canada, including:
- building insulation, including vermiculite insulation
- pipe and duct insulation
- brake pads
- floor and ceiling tiles
- siding material
- asbestos cement, cement pipes, cement tiles
Finished products containing asbestos that are in good condition have little or no health risk and should be left alone. If these products are disturbed, you should call a trained professional to remove it properly. Do not try to repair or remove any materials that contain asbestos yourself. Breathing in asbestos fibers is known to cause serious and sometimes fatal lung diseases.
Health risks of asbestos
Breathing in asbestos can cause lung cancer and other serious lung diseases. If you are concerned about possible exposure to asbestos, talk to your health-care professional.
How is asbestos harmful to your lungs?
When asbestos is cut, grounded up or disturbed, asbestos fibers can fly into the air and stay there for a long time. When you breathe in, asbestos fibers can get stuck deep in your lungs. The fibers damage the alveoli, the tiny air sacs at the end of your breathing passages, deep in your lungs. Normally your alveoli inflate and deflate like a balloon, taking in oxygen and getting rid of carbon dioxide. Healthy alveoli are nice and stretchy. Asbestos causes damage and scarring (fibrosis) so your alveoli become stiff, not stretchy. When your alveoli are stiff your lungs have a harder time taking in oxygen, and the muscles in your chest have to work harder to force the air in and out of your lungs.
Asbestos also increases the risk of developing lung cancer, especially in those who have smoked.
What diseases are caused by asbestos?
- Asbestosis – a serious, lung-term breathing disease that permanently scars the lungs and makes it hard to breath.
- Lung cancer – risks especially increase in those who have also smoked.
- Mesothelioma: a rare cancer of the lining of the chest or abdominal cavity. The Canadian Cancer Society explains more about mesothelioma.
- Benign pleural diseases: thickening and hardening of the pleura (linking that covers the lungs and chest cavity). These can be associated with pleural effusions (fluid around the lung).
- Pleural plaques: scaring of the lung pleura (lining). The scarring causes the lining to thicken and swell.
- Cancers of the larynx and digestive system, including cancer of the esophagus (food pipe), stomach and colon.
What should I do if I think I have asbestos-related disease, or if I know I was exposed to asbestos?
If you think you have asbestos-related disease, or if you have any breathing difficulties, talk to your doctor about your symptoms and your worries. Explain how long you were exposed to asbestos and how much asbestos you lived near or worked with.
If you were exposed to asbestos for a long time or in large amounts but do not have any symptoms, you should also see your doctor for an exam. Not everyone who has been exposed to asbestos will develop an asbestos-related disease, but it is really important to see your doctor.
Quit smoking. If you were exposed to asbestos and you currently smoke, you should quit smoking. Smoking combined with asbestos exposure greatly increases the risk of getting lung cancer.
Get the flu and pneumonia shot. Lung infections can be very serious for people with asbestos-related lung diseases. Learn how to avoid infections.
Is asbestos still in use?
These days, only a small number of products sold in Canada contain asbestos. Asbestos may be still used in brake linings, clutch facings and some roof shingles. Asbestos is regulated in Canada by the federal government’s Hazardous Products Act.
Nowadays, Canadians are most often exposed to asbestos when they’re working in an industry that makes or uses asbestos products, or when they are knocking down or fixing old buildings. People who work near asbestos should use special equipment and have special training on how to limit their exposure. Handling material that contains asbestos is not a job for a do-it-yourselfer; it requires the expertise and the equipment of a professional. If you are planning to repair or seal a building that may contain asbestos, hire an experienced contractor with specialized training in how to handle and remove asbestos.
Although asbestos is banned for use in most Canadian products, it is still mined here in Canada and it is still exported and widely used in other countries. This means millions of people around the world are exposed to asbestos and at risk of developing asbestos-related diseases. (Read what the Canadian Lung Association says about asbestos exports)
How to prevent asbestos exposure in your home?
If you are doing a renovation project in a home built before the 1980s, you may be putting yourself at risk for asbestos exposure without even knowing it. Asbestos may be found in wall insulation, insulation around hot-water and steam pipes, soundproofing and decorative materials on the walls and ceilings, ironing board pads, textured paint, roofing and siding shingles, vinyl floor tiles and other items in your house. You do not need to remove these products, as long as they are not damaged or falling apart. If the material is damaged, do not remove it yourself – removing or disturbing the asbestos will release the asbestos fibers into the air. Instead, call a trained professional to remove it. Look up “asbestos abatement/removal” in the phone book to find a professional in your area.
How to prevent asbestos exposure at work?
If you work in a job that still uses asbestos (shipbuilding, brake installation, building demolition, etc.) be sure to wear all the protective gear you need and follow safety procedures to reduce your risk of exposure. If you do not think your employer is doing enough to protect you from asbestos, contact your provincial occupational health agency or The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), a national government-funded agency.