The Threat of Asbestos to Environmental Health Professionals: Exposure Effects and Testing for Toxins

Environmental health professionals are experts when it comes to maintaining overall cleanliness and sanitation. Workers can often find themselves in contact with toxins that can be harmful not only to the environment but to their own health. It’s common that workers can come into contact with asbestos in both its natural form or while handling building materials on a job site. Unfortunately, many types of workers across these fields are oftentimes ill-equipped when it comes to taking the proper precautions when handling asbestos.

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a natural material that comes in several forms and can cause serious health problems if inhaled or ingested. While there are several types of asbestos fibres, chrysotile, known as white asbestos, is the most common, and accounts for 90% of asbestos production in the world. Up until 2018, when asbestos was banned in Canada, the country was one of the world’s leading asbestos exporters.

Naturally, occurring asbestos is found in three rock types: serpentine, altered ultramafic, and some mafic rocks, all of which were previously mined in Canada. Before physicians discovered the substance to be toxic in humans, asbestos was used in building products such as insulation, vinyl flooring, and many other related materials.

While Canada was once considered one of the leading exporters of asbestos and established two major asbestos mines in the late 1800s, it is now one of the several countries that have banned the use of asbestos entirely.

Learn more about the history and phasing out of asbestos in Canada


According to a 2019 study by the Occupational Cancer Research Centre and Carex Canada, about 1,900 lung cancer and 430 mesothelioma cases are diagnosed annually due to asbestos exposure. This accounts for 8% of all lung cancers and 81% of all mesothelioma diagnosis in Canada.

Mesothelioma is a cancer that mainly manifests in the lining of the lungs, and the only known cause of this disease is from asbestos exposure. If asbestos is inhaled or ingested, the fibers have the potential to stick to the lungs and other organs. Over time with regular exposure, these fibers cause tumors in the lungs or other organs, and eventually lead to mesothelioma. Mesothelioma has a latency period of anywhere from 10-50 years, meaning it can be more difficult to catch this cancer before it develops into later stages. The only way to verify a mesothelioma diagnosis is by conducting a biopsy, however it’s common for individuals to experience symptoms such as a dry cough, chest pains, and fatigue. Because these symptoms align with other less serious medical conditions, this cancer can be initially mistaken for pneumonia or the flu.

While many occupational workers are the most at risk for mesothelioma, environmental workers also fall into this category due to any naturally occurring asbestos they can come in contact with, while on the job. It’s imperative that individuals who believe they were in contact with asbestos and are experiencing respiratory issues should routinely monitor these symptoms with their physician.

Naturally Occurring Asbestos Exposure

In Canada, environmental demolition workers can work on cleaning old construction sites, old mining sites, or any other site where naturally occurring toxins can be found. Specifically in Canada, old mining sites can still contain traces of natural asbestos. Asbestos is not a threat unless it is broken or disturbed, however, in cleaning up these sites, this fibre is bound to be released into the air.

Asbestos can also be naturally occurring in the environment, such as rock landslides washing sentiment into a water source, low river levels and exposing asbestos rock, or floods depositing asbestos material. Soil characteristics, for example, if the soil is dry and it’s windy, can cause more exposure to natural asbestos. Thankfully there are precautionary measures workers can take in order to remain safe from naturally occurring asbestos.

Testing for Asbestos in Work Zones

Apart from wearing the proper personal protective equipment, including respirators, eyewear, disposable coveralls, rubber boots, and disposable gloves, there are ways environmental workers can test for levels of asbestos before they start their job.

Activity-Based Sampling (ABS)

Activity-based sampling is an air sampling method designed to mimic typical activities to configure levels of asbestos exposure. In order to test a specific area, professionals are able to perform selected activities, such as cleaning/remediation, and test the amount of asbestos to measure potential risks.

In order to get the most accurate results, professionals conduct their testing in worst case scenario conditions. That way they can see what the most damage would be in a certain area. Professionals perform the activity with proper protective gear, and collect air samples during this time which are then tested for asbestos levels.

This type of testing provides a snapshot of the potential exposure in one place and one time so it is not always the most accurate test when working on larger areas of land. Furthermore, it does not account for all types of natural conditions that are uncontrollable by workers.

Releasable Asbestos Field Sampler (RAFS)

Releasable Asbestos Field Samplers were created to be less expensive and less labor-intensive as the ABS testing. This type of testing uses machines to rake and disturb soil to release any asbestos fibers into the air. The soil is then collected by the machine and passed over a filter sampling cassette to test for asbestos.

While this type of testing is a less expensive way to test for toxins, it has shown higher levels of asbestos when tested against ABS sampling. However, this type of machine is not being tested further or being used by the US EPA at this time.

Fluidized Bed Asbestos Segregator (FBAS)

The Fluidized Bed Asbestos Segregator has become the more favored way of testing for toxins in comparison to other testings. The machine is an instrument used for determining the amount of toxic fibers that can become airborne if the soil in a certain area is disturbed.

Through this type of testing, professionals are able to tell how much asbestos is in the soil that has the potential of becoming airborne. Since no amount of asbestos is healthy, it is better to stay away from the area or wear proper equipment when working wherever any is present.

Water Sampling

Surface water sampling is another inexpensive and easy way to test for naturally occurring asbestos in a specific area. With this testing, the samples of water are taken to a laboratory for further sampling in glass bottles. The samples are then tested for their levels of asbestos and other toxins with specific orders to prevent cross contamination.

This type of testing is done more commonly on drinking water but is also extended to include other types of water, for example surface water and groundwater, where work is to be done.

Remaining Vigilant

Environmental health workers are more likely to come in contact with naturally occurring asbestos in comparison to other occupational workers who come in contact with the toxin through construction or demolition. However, asbestos in its natural form is still just as much of a threat to one’s health. In order for these workers to remain safe on the job, wearing proper protective gear and testing the work site beforehand is essential.

Information sourced from Mesothelioma Awareness Day Advocates


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