Health & Safety

When is Asbestos Dangerous?

The most common way for asbestos fibres to enter the body is through breathing. In fact, asbestos containing material is not generally considered to be harmful unless it is releasing dust or fibres into the air where they can be inhaled or ingested. Many of the fibres will become trapped in the mucous membranes of the nose and throat where they can then be removed, but some may pass deep into the lungs or, if swallowed, into the digestive tract. Once they are trapped in the body, the fibres can cause health problems.

Asbestos is most hazardous when it is friable. The term “friable” means that the asbestos is easily crumbled by hand, releasing fibres into the air. Sprayed-on asbestos insulation is highly friable. Asbestos floor tile is not.

Asbestos-containing ceiling tiles, floor tiles, undamaged laboratory cabinet tops, shingles, fire doors, siding shingles, etc. will not release asbestos fibres unless they are disturbed or damaged in some way. If an asbestos ceiling tile is drilled or broken, it may release fibres into the air. If it is left alone and not disturbed, it will not release fibres into the air.

Damage and deterioration will increase the friability of asbestos-containing materials. Water damage, continual vibration, aging and physical impact such as drilling, grinding, buffing, cutting, sawing or striking, can break the materials down making fibre release more likely.

Health Effects

Because it is so hard to destroy asbestos fibres, the body can not break them down or remove them once they are lodged in lung or body tissue. They remain in place where they can cause fatal disease.

There are three primary diseases associated with asbestos exposure:

Asbestosis (Pulmonary Fibrosis)

is a serious, chronic, non-cancerous respiratory disease. Inhaled asbestos fibres aggravate lung tissue which causes them to scar (fibrosis). Symptoms of asbestosis include shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, a dry crackling sound in the lungs upon inhalation, cough, chest pain, nail abnormalities or clubbing of the fingers. In it’s advanced stages the disease may cause cardiac failure.

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There is no treatment for asbestosis. The disease is usually disabling or fatal. The risk of asbestosis is minimal for those who do not work with asbestos; the disease is rarely caused by neighbourhood or family exposure. Those who renovate or demolish buildings that contain asbestos may be at significant risk, depending on the nature of the exposure.

Pleural Effusion

is an accumulation of fluid between the layers of the membrane lining, the lung and the chest cavity. Pleural fluid is normally formed in small amounts to lubricate the surfaces of the “pleura,” the thin membrane that lines the chest cavity and surrounds the lungs. A “pleural effusion” is an abnormal collection of this fluid.

Two different types of effusions can develop. Transudative pleural effusions are usually caused by a disorder in the normal pressure in the lung. Congestive heart failure is the most common type of transudative effusion. Exudative effusions form as a result of inflammation of the pleura, which is often caused by lung disease. Cancer, tuberculosis and other lung infections, drug reactions, and asbestosis are some of the diseases that can cause exudative pleural effusions.


is a rare form of cancer which most often occurs in the thin membrane lining of the lungs, chest, abdomen and (rarely) the heart. People who work in asbestos mines, asbestos mills, factories and shipyards have an increased risk of mesothelioma. People who live with asbestos workers or who live near a shipyard which produces high quantities of airborne asbestos fibre, are considered to be at high risk. The tumour spreads rapidly to involve the pericardium (sac around the heart), mediastinum, and opposite pleura. Progressive pain and shortness of breath occurs. The tumour is usually associated with a pleural effusion.

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