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The effects of asbestos on health


The word ‘asbestos’ refers to various minerals composed of fibres. These minerals are found in their natural state in rock formations all over the world, including in Canada.

Asbestos fibres are flexible and strong, resistant to high temperatures and can be used as insulation to reduce heat or noise. Due to these characteristics, asbestos was once used in construction and renovation. In Québec, products and materials containing asbestos were mainly used by the construction industry between 1930 and 1990. That is why residential buildings that were constructed or renovated during that period may contain asbestos in various places.

Health hazards associated with asbestos

Asbestos fibres in the air are a health hazard for those exposed to them. Materials containing asbestos may be hazardous to health when fibres are released into the air, which may happen when these materials are:

  • In bad condition
  • Friable, which means they can be crumbled or reduced to powder
  • Sawed, drilled, cut, sanded or broken

Materials containing asbestos that are in good condition, not friable and left undisturbed do not present health hazards.

You are exposed to asbestos when the air you breathe contains asbestos fibres. All exposure to asbestos can lead to health problems. The more you are exposed, the greater your risk of experiencing health problems.

A person who has been exposed to asbestos can develop chronic lung diseases that can take decades before showing symptoms:

  • Mesothelioma (a rare form of cancer that affects the outer lining of the lungs or organs in the abdomen)
  • Lung cancer
  • Asbestosis

Protection and prevention

You can take precautions to protect yourself from the effects of asbestos on your health, especially if you plan to do renovations. To learn more, read Preventing health problems associated with asbestos.

Risk factors

The risk of someone having health problems associated with exposure to asbestos increases with:

  • The amount of asbestos fibres to which the person is exposed
  • The duration and frequency of the person’s exposure to asbestos fibres

People at risk

Health problems associated with asbestos are rare in the general population. However, all exposure to airborne asbestos fibres, especially during renovation work, can lead to a risk of cancer or chronic lung disease. The more you are exposed, the greater your risk.

Certain workers are more likely to experience health problems associated with asbestos. They include those who work in:

  • Asbestos mines
  • Factories that manufacture parts containing asbestos
  • The construction and demolition industries

Smokers who are exposed to the same amount of asbestos fibres as non-smokers are more likely to develop lung cancer.

If you think you have been exposed to asbestos, take precautions to avoid being around it again. If you have concerns about your health in connection with possible exposure to asbestos, consult a healthcare professional. You may also contact the Clinique de médecine du travail et de l’environnement du Centre hospitalier universitaire de Montréal (CHUM) at 514 890-8000, ext. 25254.

Last update: December 20, 2017


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