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Creating a public registry of homes and buildings containing asbestos is "a critical first step in making sure Canadians are not exposed to this harmful substance," says Dan Demers, director of public issues for the Canadian Cancer Society. The society has joined the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) to ask the federal government to create a registry that is free, easily accessible and includes privately owned buildings and homes, buildings on aboriginal lands and government-owned structures.

"Asbestos, when inhaled, can cause lung cancer and other painful, fatal diseases that may not appear until years after exposure," says Dr. Anna Reid, president of the CMA. "This is why the CMA fully supports the creation of a public registry of asbestos-containing buildings and further measures to increase awareness of this dangerous substance. We owe Canadians at least this much."

"It is estimated that 240,000 homes across the country were insulated with materials that might contain asbestos, but the public can't find out which buildings contain the asbestos," say the medical groups. "Not knowing which buildings contain asbestos means that workers can be exposed to the substance during demolition or renovations and homeowners don't know if they need to take steps to protect themselves."

Health Canada says asbestos was a popular building material used in public buildings and homes from the 1920s to the 1990s. In houses, it was used in clapboard, shingles and felt for roofing, exterior siding, pipe and boiler covering, compounds and cement, wallboard, textured and latex paints, acoustical ceiling tiles and plaster and vinyl floor tiles, among other uses.

In 2004, Health Canada issued an advisory about asbestos in loose-fill vermiculite insulation.

"The use of asbestos in buildings and heating systems has virtually disappeared," says Health Canada. "Residential use, for roofing, flooring and appliances, continues to decrease." It says any products with asbestos that are produced today are regulated under the Hazardous Products Act, and that asbestos is better encapsulated and sealed to reduce the escape of fibres.

It becomes a problem in the home when older materials containing asbestos break down, either through deterioration as they age or when they are cut, says Health Canada. "People can put themselves at risk – often without realizing it – if they do not take proper precautions when repairs or renovations disturb asbestos-containing materials," says Health Canada.

One of the easiest ways to do this is by disturbing loose-fill vermiculite insulation, which may contain asbestos. Anyone working in an attic with the exposed insulation should avoid it, and children should not be allowed to play there. The attic should not be used for storage because moving items around may disturb the insulation. If you must walk there, Health Canada says you should put down boards and use a respirator mask.

To find out if insulation in your attic contains asbestos, or if you are doing renovation work, hire a professional asbestos abatement/removal expert. Do not attempt to remove the insulation yourself. If you are not planning a renovation and don't need to disturb the insulation, there's no need to have it removed.

It can also be dangerous when deteriorating roof shingles or roofing felt that contains asbestos are removed. Ripping out old asbestos insulation from around a hot water tank; sanding or scraping vinyl asbestos floor tiles; breaking apart acoustical ceiling tiles; sanding or scraping older water-based asbestos coatings such as roofing; and sawing, drilling or smoothing rough edges of new or old asbestos materials can also release the fibres, says Health Canada.

Unless the product is peeling or deteriorating, the best interim measure is to seal the surface temporarily so the fibres cannot be released, says Health Canada. If the product is already sealed or isolated, leave it alone. If it must be removed, call an expert.

The Canadian Cancer Society says worldwide, about 107,000 people die every year from disease related to occupational exposure to asbestos. Besides creating the public registry of buildings with asbestos, it is calling on the government to set a clear timetable for phasing out the use and export of the product.

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