Asbestos Awareness - What is Asbestos and why was it used?

Asbestos Awareness – What is it and why was it used?

Written by: Trent Pernitsky, Technologist, Pinchin Ltd.


April 1-7 is Global Asbestos Awareness Week, and was established by the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization with the intention of increasing education and awareness on asbestos and its adverse effects on human health. Despite asbestos being the leading cause of workplace death in Canada, with 107,000 people dying each year globally, there still seems to be a gap in public knowledge as to what exactly asbestos is, and the types of building materials it can be found in. Until beginning my career with Pinchin Ltd., asbestos was just a scary word that I would hear every so often, usually coming from a random by-stander looking up and pointing concernedly at a greyish-brown, fluffy looking ceiling.

It turns out, asbestos is actually a naturally occurring fibrous mineral which is mined from the earth and processed in order to be incorporated into building materials of all types. In fact, the physical properties of asbestos make it an ideal building material; asbestos is non-flammable; resistant to heat, electricity, and chemical damage; has a high tensile strength while also being very flexible; absorbs sound; and it binds easily with other insulating materials. So naturally, starting in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s, large scale asbestos mining began and it was incorporated into nearly every product used in the construction of buildings. It was referred to as “Canada’s Gold” with the first asbestos mine opening in Quebec in 1879. In 1980, Canada shipped 1.335 million metric tons of asbestos valued at $642 million dollars. For a period of time in the 50’s, cigarette companies even started using asbestos in their cigarette filters.

Hollywood also found use for a type of asbestos called chrysotile, which conveniently for them, looks a lot like snow. Unfortunately for the actors and people working with this material, asbestos is very hazardous to human health when inhaled.

It wasn’t until the 1930’s that the negative effects of asbestos were officially identified. Asbestos is known to lead to several fatal diseases such as asbestosis (stiffening of the lungs), lung cancer, and mesothelioma (cancer of the lining of the lungs and abdomen). The side effects from these diseases typically take anywhere from 15 to 50 years to develop, so Canadians are continuing to experience illnesses and deaths from exposures that occurred many years ago. The use of asbestos in various building products, such as vinyl flooring, acoustic ceiling tiles, stippled ceiling and wall finishes, pipe insulation, plaster, drywall joint compound, among many others, continued well into the late 80’s and early 90’s. As a result, there is still a high risk of asbestos exposure to individuals who reside in or work in buildings containing asbestos products that are either in poor condition or which will be disturbed during renovations and demolitions.

Among the various services that Pinchin provides, we offer sampling and consulting services on renovation/demolition projects involving asbestos and other hazardous materials. We also provide asbestos awareness training and courses for individuals and companies who work with these products. You can find a complete listing of Pinchin’s courses and seminars at Ultimately, it is Pinchin’s goal to reduce illness and death caused by exposure to asbestos and we believe that informing you of the dangers and risks of asbestos is the best approach to achieve this goal.

If you’re in the industry or like to stay on top of issues like these, I encourage you to follow Pinchin Ltd. on LinkedIn or sign up to the Pinchin “What’s New” monthly email to receive updates on new courses and seminars in your region.