Government of Nova Scotia Government of Nova Scotia Nova Scotia, Canada


Inspection, Compliance and Enforcement


Asbestos and Human Health

Asbestos poses health risks only when fibres are present in the air you breathe. There are no significant health risks if asbestos fibres remain enclosed or tightly bound in a product (for example in asbestos siding or asbestos floor tiles).

Asbestos Fibres

Asbestos is the generic name for a variety of fibrous minerals found naturally in rock formations around the world. Asbestos fibres are strong, durable and do not burn. This is why asbestos was widely used by industry.

Buildings and Homes

Because it is a valuable reinforcing, insulating, and fire-proofing material, asbestos was used widely in construction materials, such as:

  • Insulation board
  • Asbestos cement
  • Floor and ceiling tiles
  • Drywall joint cement

These products do not release significant amount of fibre under normal use. However, you can release fibres if you cut or damage these products.

Levels of asbestos fibres in the air in buildings are usually about the same as in the air outside and are not a significant risk. But levels may be higher if you disturb asbestos materials that are easily broken up.

There is also a concern about vermiculite insulation, which may contain small amounts of asbestos fibres and may cause health risks if disturbed. Yet there is currently no evidence of risk to your health if the insulation is

  • sealed behind wallboards or floorboards
  • isolated in an attic
  • kept from exposure to the home or interior environment

The Health Risks of Asbestos

The amount of asbestos in a product does not indicate its health risk. If the asbestos fibres remain enclosed or tightly bound in a product, there is no significant risk to health.

Asbestos poses health risks only when fibres are present in the air you breathe. When inhaled in significant quantities, asbestos fibres can cause

  • Asbestosis – a scarring of the lungs that makes breathing difficult
  • Mesothelioma – an otherwise rare cancer of the lining of the chest and abdominal cavity.
  • Lung cancer
  • Cancer of the larynx
  • Ovarian cancer

There is also evidence that asbestos can cause cancer of the pharynx and stomach. The link between asbestos and other forms of cancer is less clear.

Smoking combined with inhaled asbestos greatly increases the risk of lung cancer.

Reduce Your Risk

Homeowners should:

  • Get expert advice before removing materials that may contain asbestos
  • Regularly check for signs of wear or damage if you think your home may contain asbestos

But remember, you can’t always tell just by looking at the material. If in doubt, have it analyzed by a qualified professional. You can find one by looking up experts in “asbestos abatement/removal.”

If you must handle small amounts of material that contains asbestos, follow these steps.

  • Keep other people and pets away.
  • Seal off the work area.
  • Wear the right protective clothing, including a half-mask respirator with a High Efficiency Particulate Arrester (HEPA) filter cartridge approved by the national Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH). These filters are designated as either N-100, R-100, or P-100 particulate filters. A common dust mask is not enough to protect you from asbestos fibres.
  • Wet the material to reduce dust. Make sure it is not in contact with electricity.
  • If possible, do not cut or damage the materials further and do not break them up.
  • Clean the work area afterwards using a damp cloth, not a vacuum cleaner.
  • Seal the asbestos waste and cloth in a plastic bag. Check with your municipality on how to dispose of waste that contains asbestos.
  • Do not spread dust by shaking out clothing.
  • Wash or throw away clothing, and shower after finishing the job.

Advice for public and commercial building owners

  • Keep an inventory of locations and materials that contain asbestos to inform users, authorities and contractors.

Advice for construction and maintenance workers

  • Find out whether asbestos is present before starting work and take appropriate precautions.
  • Avoid creating asbestos dust from scraping, brushing, rubbing or cutting damaged insulation.
  • Report insulation damage to the right authority, such as the Occupational Health and Safety Manager.

More Information

Health Canada