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The most commonly used form of asbestos is chrysotile, or white asbestos. It is used in a wide range of industrial and consumer products because of its resistance to high temperatures.

When disturbed, chrysotile breaks into tiny dust fibres invisible to the naked eye. These fibres can remain suspended in the air and easily enter our body simply by breathing

Manufacturers do not label their chrysotile products AND trade workers are not trained to recognize chrysotile.

There is no safe exposure to chrysotile. It has been scientifically recorded that even one fibre inside the lungs has the ability to cause harm. If chrysotile fibres are inhaled, some can remain in the lungs for an extended period of time, potentially causing one or more asbestos-related illness, such as asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer.

To make chrysotile safe for use, manufacturers encapsulate chrysotile into a matrix of cement or resin. This state is known as xnonfriablex which means the individual toxic chrysotile fibres will not leak into the environment under pressure. However, the standard of measurement used by manufacturers is hand pressure, not the power tools commonly used by workers when cutting materials containing chrysotile.

The Result?

When trade workers and homeowners accidentally cut chrysotile-containing materials, they could breathe any chrysotile fibres that may be released.

In addition, chrysotile fibres can also be released from modern nonfriable products when other materials included in the chrysotile-containing product degrade over time due to weathering and age.

Sources of Asbestos Exposure

People may be exposed to asbestos in a variety of ways. The fibres tend to break easily and, if damaged or disturbed, form a dust with tiny particles that float in the air or stick to clothes, making them easy to inhale. This type of exposure can cause serious health problems and increase the risk of developing an asbestos-related disease.

Environmental Exposure

Asbestos is common in very small amounts in the environment. Small levels of asbestos fibres occur in the soil, air, and water from natural and man-made sources. Asbestos can be released into the environment from the natural erosion of asbestos-bearing rock or when asbestos-containing products are damaged or worn down. The risk of environmental exposure to asbestos is considered to be very low.

Exposure in Buildings and Homes

Until its regulation in 1980, asbestos was used widely in building materials such as insulation, floor and ceiling tiles. However, the asbestos used in these products is very dense and does not release significant amounts of fibres unless cut, damaged or disturbed. The concentration of asbestos fibres in the air inside buildings is usually about the same as in the air outside and is not considered to be a significant risk. There is some concern about vermiculite insulation, which may contain small amounts of amphibole asbestos. However, there is currently no evidence of a health risk if the insulation is sealed behind wallboards and floorboards, isolated in an attic or kept from exposure and from being disturbed.

Occupational Exposure

The risk of exposure to asbestos is highest for people who mine asbestos or work with it in manufacturing. The risk of developing cancer is also potentially the highest in these groups.

Today, strict government regulations and improved work practices have decreased the risk of asbestos exposure for workers. However, building maintenance, construction and other trade workers may be exposed to very high concentrations of asbestos fibres during renovations and repairs to older buildings.

Most tradespeople working in these circumstances are trained in the proper handling of asbestos-containing materials and should be particularly careful when handling these materials.

Levels of Asbestos Exposure

The World Health Organization has not been able to determine whether there is any safe level of exposure to asbestos for humans (a safe level means the person exposed would not have an increased risk of cancer because of the exposure). Asbestos poses health risks when fibres are present in the air and people inhale them.

How exposure to asbestos can affect a person depends on:

  • the concentration of asbestos fibres in the air
  • how long the exposure lasted
  • how often the person was exposed
  • the size of the asbestos fibres inhaled
  • the amount of time since the first exposure

Asbestos-related diseases are more likely to occur in people who are exposed to higher concentrations of asbestos, exposed for longer periods of time and exposed more often.

Exposure to asbestos is associated with an increased risk of:

  • asbestosis – a long-term (chronic) lung disease that causes scarring of the lungs, shortness of breath and a cough
  • lung cancer
    • studies have shown the combination of smoking and asbestos exposure is especially hazardous.
    • those who are exposed to asbestos and use tobacco are at even greater risk of developing lung cancer.
  • mesothelioma – a rare cancer involving the thin membranes that line the chest or abdomen

The link between exposure to asbestos and other types of cancer is less clear. Some studies have suggested an association with laryngeal cancer, gastrointestinal cancers and other diseases. Diseases from asbestos exposure take a long time to develop, often many years after the first exposure to asbestos.

Reducing Your Risk

No type of exposure to asbestos fibre is considered harmless. People working around asbestos should always take proper safety precautions to limit their exposure.

Homeowners should take precautions when handling asbestos-containing materials in their home:

  • Consider hiring a contractor with experience in removing asbestos.
  • Keep other people away from the work area and seal it off.
  • Keep asbestos-containing materials intact. Do not break them up.
  • Wear a good quality dust mask and overalls. Wash the overalls afterward. Shower thoroughly after completing the job.
  • Check that the material is not in contact with electricity, and then wet the material to prevent asbestos dust.
  • Clean the work area afterward using a damp cloth, not a vacuum cleaner, and seal the asbestos waste and cloth in a plastic bag.
  • Check with local authorities on how to dispose of asbestos-containing waste.

Workers should follow many of the same precautions mentioned above and should also:

  • Use all protective equipment provided by employers and follow recommended work practices and safety procedures.
  • Report insulation damage or exposure to the appropriate authority, such as the Occupational Health and Safety officer.

Researchers have identified safer alternatives for some uses of asbestos. However, since it is still possible to breathe in small particles while using alternatives to asbestos, safety precautions to protect workers must still be followed carefully when these products are being used.

-Canadian Cancer Society

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