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Asbestos Fact Sheet

In the mid-1970s the sad truth about asbestos become known: it is a killer. This mineral has great fire and heat resistance properties and was widely used in building insulation products including those for homes and schools. Countless thousands of people were exposed and the effects are still being felt. Although asbestos has been removed from most buildings and banned for many uses, it is still present in some products as well as being a naturally occurring substance. For the sake of your health, it's important to know where it is found and how it works within the body. 

What is asbestos? 
Asbestos refers to a group of naturally occurring silicate minerals with the ability to separate into fibers. These long thin fibers are strong and flexible enough to be woven into cloth and are valued for their heat and fire resistant qualities. There are several types of asbestos, three of which have been widely used:

  • Chrysotile or white asbestos comes mainly from Canada (there is even a town in Quebec named Asbestos). This type is found in serpentine rock.
  • Amosite, or brown asbestos, comes from southern Africa.
  • Crocidolite, or blue asbestos, comes from Australia and southern Africa. In the twentieth century, an estimated 30 million tonnes of asbestos were used in United States alone.

Where is it found? 
Few people know that asbestos is still in use today in many products. These include: building insulation, carpet underlay, roofing materials, brake pads and linings, pot holders, hair dryers, floor tiles, insulated electrical wire, textured paints, toasters and other household appliances. Manufacturers are not required to declare the presence of asbestos in component parts on their labels. 

Asbestos is used primarily for heat insulation and fire resistance. It is typically combined with a binding agent so that asbestos will not be released into the air. Problems arise when these dangerous fibres become airborne as can easily happen during renovation projects such as removing old flooring or insulation. 

The natural state of asbestos can also create problems since people usually aren't aware of the dangers. Chrysotile is found in serpentine rocks particularly common in California and Canada. This rock is typically greyish-green to bluish-black in colour and may have a shiny appearance. Although asbestos is not found in all serpentine rock, when it does occur it is usually found in amounts ranging from 1% up to 25%. These amounts are high enough to cause problems if the rock is broken or crushed thus releasing asbestos. This can happen at quarries, when digging building foundations, or when driveways are surfaced with serpentine rock. It can also be released through natural weathering and erosion. 

Health concerns 
Asbestos is a known cancer-causing agent. The only acceptable environmental level is none at all. If the microscopic particles or fibers of asbestos are inhaled they can penetrate deeply into the lungs and eventually into other parts of the body. Our immune system response is to coat these foreign particles with a special protein to render them harmless. Unfortunately, for reasons that medical science does not fully understand, these proteins-coated molecules can trigger cancer. In fact, for years after being exposed, the body continues to try to neutralize the asbestos, which means that people continue to be in danger of developing disease. Common ailments include asbestosis, cancer of the lungs, stomach, colon, ovaries and esophagus, as well as another form of cancer called mesothelioma. 

How asbestos affects our bodies 
What makes asbestos so dangerous to human health is that the fibres are extremely small and do not easily break down in the body. Normally when we inhale dust particles the automatic response is to cough so that much of it is removed in our exhaled breath or in mucus. Asbestos is insidious because many of the particles are so small that they travel deep within our lungs without triggering the cough response. In the second or so that it takes to inhale, these particles can travel down the trachea, bronchi and into hundreds of thousands of alveoli (air sacs). It is here in the alveoli where oxygen enters our bloodstream upon inhaling and carbon dioxide is expelled upon exhaling. 

The irritation caused by foreign fibres stimulates the body to attempt to neutralise the invader. The result can be filerosis or scar tissue in the spaces between the air sacs and the small airways (bronchi). This scarring hinders the body's ability to absorb oxygen and remove carbon dioxide. Sometimes a victim suffers only shortness of breath but the cumulative, long-term effects can lead to cancer. One of the ailments directly related to the penetration of asbestos into the alveoli is mesothelioma. A similar type of ailment is pleural mesothelioma which is cancer of the cells of the pleura, the lining around the outside of the lungs and the inside of the ribs. 

Asbestos in your home 

If you suspect that there may be asbestos in buildings where you live or work, contact the Ministry of Environment. Do not attempt to remove old insulation or flooring. Without the proper protective gear including masks specially designed to block microscopic particles, the results can be deadly. Professional flooring and insulation installers should be aware of asbestos-containing products and be able to remove them safely. 


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