Asbestos – An Overview

Article by: Nathan Brown, B.E.Sc.

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Asbestos is a family of 6 fibrous silicate minerals that have been used for their desirable properties of insulation, fire resistance, and tensile strength. When the use of asbestos became common during the first half of the 20th century it was originally touted as the “magic mineral” because of the wide variety of applications that could use asbestos. During peak production, asbestos was used in everything from fabrics to construction materials to cigarette filters. The six types of asbestos are:

  • Chrysotile – long curly fibers; by far the most common type of asbestos (90+% of commercial asbestos)
  • Amosite – more toxic than chrysotile due to shorter, straighter fibers; was primarily used in construction materials
  • Crocidolite – uncommonly used due to less desirable heat resistance properties, but extremely thin fibers make it the most toxic type of asbestos
  • Tremolite – not commonly used, but it can be found as a contaminant in vermiculite insulation or other types of asbestos since tremolite forms alongside chrysotile and vermiculite deposits
  • Anthophyllite – primarily mined in Finland and used in cement products and insulation
  • Actinolite – straight dark fibers; not used commercially, but appears as a contaminant in other asbestos samples

In Canada, the vast majority of asbestos containing materials utilize chrysotile asbestos due to the large asbestos mines in Quebec where it was produced. Chrysotile asbestos is composed of long, curly fibers made up of hollow tubes that are 25 nanometers in diameter. The fibers of chrysotile asbestos range between 1 micrometer and 10+ cm in length. Chrysotile asbestos is typically white or off-white in colour, which gives it the moniker of “white asbestos”.

At the height of its use, asbestos was used in as many as 4,000 applications including toys, paint, coffee pots and construction materials. However, during the 60s and 70s scientists began noticing the horrible health effects that asbestos causes and by the late 1970s its usage in products in Canada had hugely declined. Even though asbestos materials were no longer being produced for use in Canada, existing stores of asbestos construction materials were operational as late as 1985. If your property was constructed earlier than 1985, asbestos may have been used as a construction material.

Some of the most common asbestos containing construction materials are:

  • Building insulation
  • Drywall joint filler
  • Floor tiles
  • Ceiling tiles
  • Mastic adhesive
  • Shingles
  • Paint
  • Heating appliance insulation

This is by no means a comprehensive list and many other materials may contain asbestos. It is important for homeowners and tenants of older properties to be aware that asbestos-containing materials may be present. In the event the asbestos-containing materials are disturbed, they should be educated and informed about the potential hazards and health effects cause by exposure to asbestos.

Exposure to asbestos can cause a myriad of serious health problems. The three main diseases associated with asbestos exposure are lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma. Asbestosis is a disease caused by the penetration of asbestos fibers into the tissue of the lungs. These ultra-small fibers become buried in lung tissue where they cause scarring and bleeding. This eventually results in reduction of lung function and can be fatal. Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that affects the membranes within the chest and abdomen. The seriousness of the health effects from asbestos exposure makes it paramount that the remediation of any asbestos-containing materials be handled only by professionals.

Asbestos is often discovered in a building as a result of another event such as a fire or water loss. Asbestos may also be discovered during a renovation or construction project on an older property. It is vital that older buildings are tested for asbestos by engineering professionals when one of these events occur. Roar Engineering can determine if and where asbestos is present in your property and ensure that its abatement and disposal is handled safely and professionally.

If you have any questions regarding asbestos, its uses or its effects, please contact our environmental experts at 1-844-235-8565.


CBC News. 2009. Asbestos: The Magic Mineral that was once Canada’s Gold

Government of Canada. 2015. Health Risks of Asbestos

Health and Safety Ontario. 2010. Asbestos: Controls for Construction, Renovation, and Demolition
Ontario Regulation 278/05: Designated Substance – Asbestos on Construction Projects and in Buildings and Repair Operations. 2011.

Ross, Malcolm; Nolan, Robert P. 2014. Asbestos

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