Health risks of asbestos

Learn about asbestos and how exposure can be dangerous to your health. Also find out how to properly handle a potential asbestos problem.

Asbestos, if inhaled, can cause cancer and other diseases.

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What is asbestos?

There are several minerals commonly known as asbestos. These minerals can be used to make products strong, long-lasting and fire-resistant.

Before 1990, asbestos was mainly used for insulating buildings and homes against cold weather and noise. It was also used for fireproofing.

Industry, construction and commercial sectors have used, and, in some cases, continue to use, 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

What are the health risks of exposure?

Breathing in asbestos fibres can cause cancer and other diseases, such as:

  • asbestosis
    • a scarring of the lungs, which makes it difficult to breathe
  • mesothelioma
    • 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 can you be exposed to asbestos?

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
    • spackling
    • sealants
    • paint
    • putty
    • caulking
    • drywall

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 do you 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
  • demolitions
  • additions

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:

  • scraping
  • brushing
  • rubbing
  • cutting

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 replacement 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 does the Government of Canada protect 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 regulating:

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