Asbestos is the name for a group of naturally occurring fibrous minerals that have had numerous commercial applications because of their durability and ability to resist high heat.
The use of asbestos, including chrysotile asbestos, has been banned in many countries.
How you’re exposed to asbestos
In Canada, current exposure to asbestos is highest for people who work with it in construction, maintenance in certain industries (i.e. smelting, petroleum, refining and pulp and paper), and repair of automotive brakes and ships. In the past when asbestos was stilled mined in Canada, people who mined and milled asbestos or who worked with it in manufacturing had the highest exposure. People who work with asbestos can expose their families if fibres come home on them or their clothing.
As of 2015, over 50 countries have banned the use of all forms of asbestos. Until recently, Canada was one of the few countries that continued to mine chrysotile asbestos, but in 2012 the asbestos mines stopped operating.
You may be exposed to asbestos from imported materials or products that contain asbestos. Some existing structures, particularly older buildings, might contain asbestos. As these structures begin to wear with age or undergo renovation, you can be exposed to asbestos fibres that are released into the air and breathed into the lungs.
Asbestos and cancer
According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the US National Toxicology Program (NTP), all forms of asbestos are known to cause cancer in people. Find out more about how cancer-causing substances are classified.
Exposure to asbestos is is known to cause many cancers, including lung cancer, mesothelioma (a rare cancer of the lining of the chest or abdominal cavity), laryngeal cancer, ovarian cancer, and possibly pharyngeal, stomach and colorectal cancers. Exposure is highest for people who mine asbestos or work with it in manufacturing, so the risk of developing cancer is also potentially the highest in these groups. Those who are exposed to asbestos and who use tobacco are at even greater risk of developing lung cancer.
It often takes decades after exposure for an asbestos-related cancer to develop. The more asbestos you were exposed to and the longer you were exposed, the greater your risk of developing cancer.
Asbestos and mesothelioma
Workers who have been exposed to asbestos and develop mesothelioma may be eligible for financial compensation. Eligibility for compensation will depend on the criteria in a particular province.
If you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma and believe you were exposed to asbestos at work, you can learn more about the guidelines in your province from your:
- provincial federation of labour
- union representative, if you have one
- healthcare provider
If you work with asbestos, make sure your employer follows the regulations for minimizing your exposure to asbestos. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (1-800-668-4284) can help you find out regulations for your province.
Tips to reduce your exposure
Given the dangers of asbestos exposure, you should do everything you can to avoid it. When it is left undisturbed, asbestos fibres that are enclosed or tightly bound in a product do not present a significant exposure risk to you.
Before starting any home renovations or demolition around areas that may contain asbestos, you should have your home inspected by a professional contractor experienced in removing asbestos safely (which is known as asbestos abatement).