Asbestos

Learn about the health risks of asbestos exposure. Asbestos, if inhaled, can cause cancer and other diseases. There's no consistent convincing evidence that asbestos ingested through drinking water is harmful to your health.

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Your exposure to asbestos

You can be exposed to asbestos when a home or building is being renovated or demolished, when doing car maintenance, and through drinking water.

Home and building renovation and demolition

Small asbestos fibres can be released into the air from asbestos-containing building materials during activities such as:

  • drilling
  • sawing
  • sanding
  • scraping
  • removing
  • disturbing
  • breaking apart
  • smoothing rough edges

Asbestos-containing building materials can include:

  • vinyl asbestos floor tiles
  • soundproofing ceiling tiles
  • roofing shingles and felt or siding
  • plaster, including acoustical plaster
  • older surface treatments, such as:
    • paint
    • putty
    • drywall
    • caulking
    • sealants
    • spackling
    • roofing compounds like tar paper
  • insulation, including insulation around hot water pipes and tanks

When doing car maintenance

Some car parts also contain asbestos. In some cases, you can be exposed to asbestos dust when changing your brakes or replacing a transmission clutch.

In drinking water

Asbestos fibres may be released into drinking water sources from:

  • runoff of mining tailings
  • improperly disposed contaminated household wastes
  • stream and groundwater contact with asbestos-bearing bedrock

Standard water treatment processes involving chemical coagulation followed by filtration can effectively remove these asbestos fibres from drinking water supplies.

Asbestos fibres may also be released from asbestos-cement pipes that carry drinking water from the treatment plant into your home. Asbestos-cement pipes were used in water distribution systems across Canada between the 1940's and 1960's because they were light, smooth and corrosion-resistant. The use of asbestos-cement pipes has been largely discontinued since in the 1970's, however, they remain in use in various drinking water distribution systems across Canada.

Health risks of asbestos exposure

Breathing in asbestos fibres can cause cancer and other diseases, such as:

  • asbestosis
    • is a scarring of the lungs, which makes it difficult to breathe
  • mesothelioma
    • a rare cancer of the lining of the chest or abdominal cavity
  • lung cancer
    • smoking can greatly increase this risk

There are no significant health risks if materials containing asbestos in your home are:

  • left undisturbed
  • isolated in an attic
  • sealed behind walls and floorboards
  • tightly bound in products and are in good condition

There is no consistent, convincing evidence that asbestos ingested through water is harmful. If you drink water containing asbestos fibres, you eliminate the fibres, mostly through feces. For this reason, Health Canada has not established drinking water guidelines for asbestos.

Because there is no evidence showing that ingested asbestos is harmful, there is no reason to establish a maximum acceptable concentration (MAC) for asbestos in drinking water.

Reduce your risk of exposure to asbestos

You can reduce your risk of exposure in the home, while at work, when doing car maintenance, and in drinking water. There is no need to change the way you use drinking water.

In your home

You can reduce your risk of exposure by hiring a professional to test for asbestos before doing any:

  • renovations or remodelling
  • demolitions
  • additions

If a professional finds asbestos, hire a qualified asbestos removal specialist to get rid of it before beginning work. Avoid disturbing asbestos materials yourself. This increases the risk to your health and your family's health. Check with your provincial and territorial workplace safety authorities to find out the qualifications or certifications needed for removal specialists in your area.

If you have vermiculite-based insulation in your attic, it may contain asbestos. To avoid exposure to asbestos fibres, do not disturb vermiculite-based attic insulation in any way or attempt to remove it yourself.

Make sure:

  • children are not allowed in the attic
  • the attic is not used for storage or any other use
  • you hire professionals trained to handle asbestos if you plan to remodel or renovate
  • all cracks and holes in the ceiling of the rooms below the insulation are sealed
  • caulking around light fixtures and the attic hatch is applied to prevent insulation from falling through

If you have vermiculite-based insulation in your attic, some may have fallen inside your walls over time. Therefore, you should seal cracks and holes with caulking:

  • around window and door frames
  • along baseboards
  • around electrical outlets

While at work

If you work in maintenance or construction, find out if asbestos is present in your work area. If you are unsure, check with a qualified asbestos removal specialist.

When handling insulation or other building materials that may contain asbestos avoid creating dust.

Repair, rehabilitation and replacement of asbestos-cement water pipes poses an increased health concern for utility workers. This is because pipe cutting, polishing, demolition, transportation and disposal may create dust. In many areas, utility companies must follow strict regulations when working with different types of asbestos.

You should report any damage to materials containing asbestos to the appropriate authority, such as your occupational health and safety manager. If you find asbestos while renovating in the workplace, hire a qualified asbestos removal specialist to get rid of it before beginning work. Avoid disturbing asbestos materials yourself. This increases the risk to your health and the health of others. Check with your federal, provincial or territorial workplace safety authority to find out the qualifications or certifications needed in your area.

Public and commercial building owners should keep an inventory of asbestos-containing materials to inform tenants, authorities and contractors.

If you are an auto mechanic, check with your parts supplier to find out if:

  • any replacement brake pads or transmission parts you are working with contain asbestos
    • if you are unsure, check with your federal, provincial or territorial workplace safety authority for precautions you should take

Federal, provincial and territorial occupational health and safety agencies are responsible for setting workplace limits for exposure to hazardous substances. Their legislation also requires employers to inform and train their workers on the safe use of such products.

When doing car maintenance

Because asbestos can also be found in some brake and transmission parts, you can reduce your risk of exposure by:

  • calling the auto parts supplier to check if these parts contain asbestos before doing any work yourself
  • having your brakes or clutch serviced at a commercial automotive shop

In drinking water

Because ingesting asbestos through drinking water is not a health concern, you don't need to take any action in your home to protect yourself from drinking asbestos-contaminated water.

Your risk of exposure to airborne asbestos from tap water is very low. For example, if you use tap water in the shower or in a humidifier, there is very little chance of asbestos fibres transferring into the air. This means that using tap water in showers or humidifiers is unlikely to contribute significantly to your exposure to harmful asbestos fibres.

Contact your local water utility if you have any questions about asbestos-cement pipe projects.

About asbestos

There are several minerals commonly known as asbestos. These minerals can be used to make products strong, long-lasting and fire-resistant.

Before 1990, asbestos was mainly used for insulating buildings and homes against cold weather and noise. It was also used for fireproofing.

Industry, construction and commercial sectors have used, and, in some cases, continue to use, asbestos in products like:

  • cement and plaster
  • industrial furnaces and heating systems
  • building insulation
  • floor and ceiling tiles
  • house siding
  • car and truck brake pads
  • vehicle transmission components, such as clutches

We recognize that breathing in asbestos fibres can cause cancer and other diseases. We help protect you from asbestos exposure by prohibiting:

  • the import, sale and use of asbestos
  • the manufacture, import, sale and use of asbestos-containing products, including asbestos-cement pipes

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