What is Asbestos, and Why is it Harmful?

Asbestos Removal in Victoria BC

Asbestos is a blanket term for a group of six naturally occurring silicate minerals (a combination of minerals, silica, and oxygen that form into rocks). These six types are separated into two groups: serpentines, which include chrysotile; and amphiboles which include crocidolite, tremolite, amosite, anthophylite and actinolite.

Amphiboles Serpentines

The types of asbestos are separated into these groups according to chemical composition and health hazard. These minerals are mined and exploited commercially for their desirable physical properties.

Asbestos Fibers
Asbestos fibers

All types of asbestos are fibrous due to a crystal-like structure, and can be broken down into long, flexible, smooth fibers that can be smaller than 0.2 micrometers  (imagine a cheese string being peeled into infinitely smaller strings down to microscopic levels).  These tiny fibers are harmful when we inhale them, and they get caught in our respiratory tract.



The most common form of asbestos is chrysotile. Chrysotile is a soft fibrous silicate mineral in the serpentine group. It produces a curly fibre which makes it a little bit less dangerous than other forms of asbestos. Chrysotile asbestos is commonly found in drywall mud, sheet flooring, and vinyl floor tiles.

Chrysotile RockChrysotile ElectronChrysotile asbestos in its rock form showing its fibrous crystalline structure and chrysotile as seen under a microscope.

The other types of asbestos are less common and have more of a needle-like fiber. Tremolite and actinolite are the types of asbestos present in vermiculite, and amosite can be found in fiberboard and ceiling tiles.

Amosite RockTremolite micro(Left to Right) Amosite asbestos in its rock form, tremolite asbestos under a microscope, crocidolite asbestos in its rock form, actinolite asbestos in its fibrous form.



Crocidolite Rockactinolite fibers





Asbestos is resistant to heat, chemicals, and electricity, making it an excellent insulator. It also has sound proofing properties, and a high tensile strength which makes it flexible. Due to these unusual features, it has been mined for over 4,000 years, and has many uses.

Why is asbestos bad for you?

First, let’s clarify that asbestos fibers are only harmful when they are inhaled. That means that asbestos containing materials must be disturbed, and the fibers must be airborne and then inhaled for them to be harmful. Asbestos fibers are extremely small. The image below displays the size difference between asbestos fibers and human hairs. An average human hair is approximately 70 micrometers. An asbestos fiber can range from 10 micrometers to less than 2.5 micrometers in size. This is represented by the PM10 and PM2.5 shown on the image below.

Asbestos fiber size graphic

When inhaled the asbestos fibers are taken deep into the lungs. The body cannot break down the fibers, so instead it creates cells to surround it. The needle-like shape of the fibers allows them to consistently damage the tissue around them. Eventually scar tissue builds up around the fiber meaning that there is less surface area in the lungs for gas exchange. This reduces the capacity of the lungs and also reduces the ability of the lungs to deliver oxygen and remove carbon dioxide from the body.

Acute health issues that can be caused by asbestos include allergic reactions, asthma attacks, and respiratory sensitivity.

There are three main chronic diseases caused by asbestos:

Lung xray

1. Asbestosis is a lung disease that reduces the capacity of the lung. It is caused by the buildup up of scar tissue over time. The most common symptom is shortness of breath, which is caused by the lack of surface area for gas exchange in the lungs. The onset of asbestosis takes 15-30 years. It was a common illness for people that were repeatedly exposed to large amounts of asbestos.
2. Lung Cancer
is a cellular disorder that can be initiated by many factors. Asbestos exposure may be only one contributing factor to lung cancer. Cigarette smokers who work with asbestos are more than 50 times more likely to contract lung cancer than the normal population.

lung cancer graphic
3. Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer usually caused by exposure to asbestos. This cancer develops in the protective lining of some of the body’s internal organs. It’s most common site is the outer lining of the lungs and internal chest wall, but it may also occur in the lining of the heart and abdomen.

Mesothelioma graphic


The way to prevent all of these diseases is by preventing asbestos exposure. The number one way to do this is to have any suspect material tested for asbestos before disturbing it. If asbestos is found, ensure that the asbestos containing materials are removed by certified professionals. If you are unsure if asbestos is present, or you must be around asbestos materials, then be sure to wear the appropriate protective equipment. This includes:

  • Fit tested half or full mask respirator with P100 HEPA Filtered cartridges
  • Disposable Impermeable Hazmat Suit (to ensure that fibers are not transferred on clothing)

Ensure that you wet down any materials that produce dust and debris to prevent it from becoming airborne. Bag and dispose of the waste in an appropriate manner to ensure that asbestos is not released further down the waste stream as it could easily harm someone else.

Click to learn more about our asbestos removal service in Greater Victoria.