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Asbestos: Hidden Danger

A little drop of poison by Fabio Venni
A little drop of poison
by Fabio Venni

Until not too long ago, asbestos used to be applauded for its unique characteristics: being resistant to heat, fire, chemicals and wear made it a very desirable material. For decades it was used in making thousands of products, from building material to clothes and toys, until about 50 years ago when it became obvious that it was also poisonous.

What is asbestos poisoning?

The blessings and curse of asbestos at the same time is its durability, which has been exploited in numerous industries. On the other hand, when present in human bodies, the body has no means of disposing of it. As long as asbestos stays compound in the material it is part of, then it is harmless. It only becomes dangerous when the tiny needle-like fibers become airborne, which makes them likely to be inhaled.

Asbestos has been linked to a number of serious lung diseases. The trouble with asbestos poisoning is that it takes dozens of years for the disease to finally develop,a long time after the initial exposure to the toxin, while the primary symptoms such as dry cough, tightness in the chest or shortness of breath match the symptoms of many less serious diseases. Combined with the length of the latency period, the real cause of trouble is often discovered too late.

The most common diseases that have been linked to asbestos poisoning are asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer. Asbestosis is caused by the lungs trying to dissolve the asbestos fibers by producing acid. While the acid does no harm to the asbestos, it scars the surrounding tissue, causing it to harden. Eventually, pulmonary fibrosis develops, dramatically reducing the ability of the lungs to fill with air. In the late stages of asbestosis, shortness of breath occurs even while resting. The more exposure to asbestos, the higher the risk of asbestosis. No effective treatment has yet been discovered.

Mesothelioma is an incurable cancer of the outer lining of the lungs. While it is extremely rare in patients with no history of asbestos exposure, it accounts for around 14% of all deaths related to asbestos poisoning. Unlike asbestosis, mesothelioma has been associated with very short, even accidental exposure to asbestos poisoning. It is usually fatal within 12-15 months of diagnosis.

Asbestos-induced lung cancer has been responsible for more than half of all deaths caused by asbestos poisoning. On the other hand, when treated in it’s early stage, patients may enjoy an active lifestyle for many years after the diagnosis. The risk of asbestos-induced lung cancer grows dramatically when the asbestos exposure is accompanied by smoking.

Asbestos in Canada

Canada used to be one of the leading asbestos producers and still supports its use in less harmful variations and mines in Quebec are still operating. Until the 1980s, asbestos had been widely used in all office buildings, public building and schools, mostly for thermal, fire and sound insulation. The most at risk people tend to be the workers who have installed asbestos materials, especially if they ignored the health and safety guidelines and allowed dust from the installation process to escape into the atmosphere and then breathed in this poisonous toxin. Canada still hasn't banned the use of asbestos. However, improvements have been made - Ontario banned using asbestos as insulation back in 1973. Local governments have been trying to get rid of this material from public buildings and any work that involves either installing or removing it is governed by very stringent regulations.

Asbestos in Toronto

Ontario has strict regulations concerning asbestos in buildings, especially since 2007. Landlords have to submit any suspicious material deteriorating in the building for examination. If the presence of asbestos is discovered, removal by certified professionals has to take place immediatelly. If there is any danger of continuous deterioration, the whole affected area has to be removed, again following strict safety rules.

The most common use of asbestos in non-domestic buildings:

  • insulation on pipes
  • ceiling tiles
  • panels boards
  • cement panels
  • sprayed coatings on walls
  • asbestos ropes and cloth
  • textures coating

The most common use of asbestos in residential homes in Toronto:

  • exterior surfaces: deck undersheeting, roof felt and shingles, window putty
  • all kinds of insulation
  • flooring: vinyl asbestos sheets, tiles and undersheeting
  • interior surface: sprayed-on acoustic ceilings, acoustic tiles
  • appliances: water heaters, range hoods, clothes dryers and dishwashers

Asbestos is still not a solved issue. We all still remember the Sunrise Propane blast from last year. Five streets were hit by asbestos debris and 3000 residents had to leave their homes until a complete and careful clear up of the area.

Local governments keep fighting with the danger posed by asbestos. However, the extent of this danger is very difficult to quantify. Since just 0.5% of asbestos in material is considered toxic, it's hard to trace back all the potential dangers. Therefore, whenever you have even the slightest suspicion that your property may be affected, ask for a home inspection by a qualified professional (you can easily find list of companies doing it in GTA area). Never try to remove suspect material on your own!

5 Comments

  • Barbara Silverstein

    I suspect my furnace pipes are insulated with asbetos. What service tests the material and removes it?

    Barbara

  • stephanie

    Hi Barbara, There is a company called Asbesan Envrinmental Group. You can get all their information at http://www.asbescan.com. Good Luck!
    The Julie Kinnear Team

  • caretaker

    Hi I am a caretaker I have over 100 pic, s of problem with asbestos need to do something to help kids and workers from exposure .help

  • stephanie

    Hi, thank you for submitting your query. You should contact Abescan Environtmental Group at 1-800-399-9088. I am assuming you are in Ontario as this is a local Toronto business. Their website is http://www.asbescan.ca, GoodLuck!

  • Chris

    I have a house built in 1985. I have popcorn ceiling and want to remove it. Is it safe do do it my self. I hear that they banned the use of asbestos in ceiling spray in 1977, so it should be good. No? Thanks.

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