Asbestos is a carcinogen that is dangerous when inhaled or ingested. When disturbed, its fibres become present in the air we breathe. The fibres then can settle in our lungs and cause diseases like asbestosis and mesothelioma.
Asbestos’ wide range of uses means exposure to it can occur for a variety of reasons.1 You can be exposed to asbestos at your job, in your home, or from a contaminated surrounding environment. Moreover, smoking greatly increases your risk of developing an asbestos related disease if you have already been exposed to its fibres.
Occupational exposure to asbestos is the leading cause of asbestos related diseases. It is estimated by the World Health Organization that, worldwide, one in three of all deaths due to occupational cancers is caused by asbestos.2 Those who worked in asbestos in processing factories or asbestos mines in Canada were heavily exposed to the mineral, and remaining unaware of the risks of exposure were unable to protect themselves effectively.
The families of those who worked in these factories were also at risk for exposure. Asbestos fibres clung to the hair and clothing of the family member who worked in the factories. Therefore, asbestos was brought into the home environment. Sadly, exposure to asbestos as a child can pose a deadly threat decades down the road. This means an emergence of a second generation of people affected by asbestos caused by para-occupational secondary exposure can occur.
During the first and second World Wars, asbestos was heavily used, especially on ships. The legacy of its use in every branch of the military meant that a significant portion of veterans between 1930 and 1970 were exposed and affected. Moreover, a very real concern exists today for construction workers who work in buildings in which asbestos is present, as they are at risk of exposure if proper training and appropriate protective equipment is not provided.
Exposure in your home
While asbestos is, for the most part, no longer used in Canada, asbestos was installed in many homes and public buildings in the past. Especially in older homes, insulation and building materials containing asbestos remain present. People can be exposed to the asbestos within these products if it is disturbed during a renovation or during the demolition of a building where proper personal protective equipment is not used. Any building constructed before 2000 should be tested for asbestos before renovation occurs. People can be exposed to asbestos by through drinking water, as well, if it is run through cement pipes reinforced with asbestos.3
It is recommended that only tradespeople trained in the proper removal of asbestos work on buildings where it is present.4 A major issue in avoiding asbestos exposure is that it is often difficult to identify, as it is often mixed in with other elements to reinforce building materials like concrete, tile, shingles, and roofing. The only sure-fire method is for experts to test samples from a building’s materials.
People who live or work in homes that have asbestos present are at risk of exposure if the material containing the asbestos wears down, cracks, breaks, or is otherwise disturbed. This sends the asbestos fibres into the air. However, asbestos that is sealed off and not disturbed will not contaminate the air.
Asbestos contamination in a surrounding environment is another possible way to be exposed. If an asbestos mine was not closed down properly or if an asbestos processing factory dumped the waste in the surrounding area, people in the region share the risk of becoming exposed. If the asbestos waste settles into the ground over the years, it may be disturbed by later construction or development of the area, increasing exposure risk.
Asbestos exposure is a concern during natural disasters, war, and other times when buildings are damaged extensively. This can cause asbestos fibres to be released into the air, affecting large populations. For instance, the World Trade Centre in New York City was made with asbestos and other hazardous contaminants. When the World Trade Centre fell during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, large quantities of air contaminants were released into the surrounding area. The exposed populace now has an increased the risk of developing lung diseases and other asbestos-related illnesses later on life, even though the Environmental Protection Agency maintains that levels of asbestos were relatively low.5
1. The Canadian Society of Asbestos Victims. (2012). Exposure. Retrieved June 2013 from http://cansav.ca/asbestos/exposure.
2. World Health Organization. (2010). Asbestos: the elimination of asbestos-related diseases. Retrieved June 2013 from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs343/en/.
3. US Environmental Protection Agency. (2012). Basic Information About Asbestos in Drinking Water. Retrieved June 2013 from http://water.epa.gov/drink/contaminants/basicinformation/asbestos.cfm#four.
4. Health Canada (2015). Health Risks of Asbestos. Retrieved July 2015 from http://healthycanadians.gc.ca/healthy-living-vie-saine/environment-environnement/air/contaminants/asbestos-amiante-eng.php
5. Mesothelioma & Asbestos Awareness Center. (2010). Asbestos and 9/11. Retrieved June 2013 from http://www.maacenter.org/jobsites/WTC/asbestos.php.