Asbestos and mesothelioma

This section on asbestos and asbestos-related diseases has been created to inform Canadians and the global community about the history, use, and dangers of asbestos.

Asbestos refers to a group of six fibrous, microscopic, silicate minerals. All types of asbestos are known to cause chronic illnesses in humans. This was first suspected in 1906 and firmly established in the 1970s. Asbestos is carcinogenic: inhalation of asbestos fibres can cause a kind of aggressive malignant cancer called mesothelioma.[1] An individual is especially at risk if their lungs are already damaged due to smoking. In addition to mesothelioma, inhalation of asbestos can cause asbestosis, a kind of pneumoconiosis and a restrictive and chronic lung disease.[2]

According to the Association of Workers Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC), mesothelioma and lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure is the #1 cause of workplace fatalities in Canada. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 125 million people are exposed to workplace asbestos globally. About half of all deaths from occupational cancer are estimated to be caused by asbestos. In addition, it is estimated that several thousands of deaths can be attributed annually to exposure to asbestos in the living environment.

About asbestos


Mesothelioma is a rare cancer that is almost always caused by exposure to asbestos. It may appear in the lining around many of the body’s internal organs, including abdomen and around the heart. but is most commonly found in the lungs. It is difficult to diagnose, mainly because of non-specific symptoms and because of a long latency period between asbestos exposure and development of the disease. Symptoms include coughing, fatigue, shortness of breath, and a feeling of heaviness in the chest due to fluid buildup in the lungs.[3]

Unfortunately, there is no current cure for mesothelioma. By the time it is detected, most individuals diagnosed are expected to have only about a year to live. Nevertheless, new research and treatments for the disease are helping in extending life expectancy.

In 2010, 515 Canadians were diagnosed with mesothelioma.[4]

For more information, visit our mesothelioma page.


Asbestosis is the result of scarring caused by asbestos fibres becoming trapped in a person’s lungs. Once in the lungs, the fibres cause inflammation, resulting in the buildup of scar tissue over time. This inhibits a person’s ability to breathe properly. For this reason the main symptom of asbestosis is breathlessness.

Asbestosis can make a person’s lungs more vulnerable to lung cancer and mesothelioma, especially if the individual is a smoker and has inhaled a large cumulative amount of asbestos.

Like all other asbestos-related diseases, asbestosis occurs after a long latency period, meaning it can take many years for the disease to develop after initial exposure.

Asbestos and mesothelioma organizations

Looking for more resources or information about asbestos and mesothelioma? These pages list organizations that provide resources and support for patients and healthcare professionals, and advocate on their behalf to governments.

Do you use Twitter? Connect with CCSN’s account @CanadianMeso for up-to-date news on mesothelioma and asbestos from Canada and worldwide.


1. World Health Organization. (2006). Elimination of Asbestos-Related Diseases. Retrieved August 2020 from;jsessionid=A37AE5382E4BBB4CAC4ED050DD7BBFC9?sequence=1.

2. Health Canada (2018). Health Risks of Asbestos. Retrieved August 2020 from

3. Mesothelioma Resource Online. (2013). Early Symptoms of Mesothelioma. Retrieved June 2013 from

4. Canadian Cancer Society’s Advisory Committee on Cancer Statistics. (2015). Canadian Cancer Statistics 2015. Toronto, ON: Canadian Cancer Society.