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Asbestos 101: What you need to know

TORONTO – The Quebec government continues to favour a relaunch of the asbestos industry – despite a storm of recent controversy, including groundbreaking criminal convictions of two European businessmen for causing thousands of asbestos-related deaths, and far-reaching concerns about the research upon which the province bases its pro-asbestos policy.

Here’s what you need to know about asbestos:

What is asbestos and where is it found?

A natural mineral with unusual qualities, asbestos can resist high temperatures, chemical attack and wear and tear. It also provides great insulation against heat and electricity.

Asbestos can be added to cotton, cement and other materials. It can also be woven into cloth or even braided into rope.

Asbestos has been used for almost 5,000 years. More recently, it has been used in electrical appliances and in transportation.

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Also, it has also been found in many household products, from roof shingles to vinyl floor tiles and even hair dryers.

It was also used in the walls and ceilings of office buildings, public buildings and schools for much of the 20th century to insulate hot water heating systems.

In the 1980s, it became apparent that regular exposure to asbestos can be harmful. People became more concerned about being exposed to the mineral in offices, schools and in various products.

Since then, asbestos use has declined dramatically. It’s no longer used in insulation and heating systems and is less present in the house.

The use of asbestos is tightly regulated.

What health problems are associated with asbestos exposure?

According to Health Canada, asbestos poses a risk when it’s in fibres in the air people breathe. The fibres settles in the lungs and cause scarring that can lead to compromised lung function and cancer.

When can asbestos be a problem in the home?

When products containing asbestos break down over time, the fibres can be released into the air and put people’s health at risk.

The fibres can also be released when asbestos-containing items such as roof shingles, hot water tank insulation and plaster are disturbed during home renovations and repairs.

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Here are steps you can protect yourself from the harmful effects of asbestos in your home:

* Have a contractor inspect household items to determine which, if any, of them contain asbestos

* If asbestos is discovered, seal the surface right away to prevent fibres from being released

* Don’t remove asbestos from items on your own; a professional knows what precautions to take to safeguard workers and others nearby

* If you do end up coming into contact with asbestos wear an approved face mask, glove and protective clothing. Also, keep the area moist to prevent dust and fibre particles from being released into the air.

* Dispose of all waste properly, according to health agency guidelines

– With a file from Montreal Gazette