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How do you know if there's asbestos in your walls? Build a registry, experts say

It's one of the most dramatic moments on reality programs featuring home renovation projects: Workers begin demolition, only to discover asbestos is throughout the home they're working on. Cue delays and a major budget increase as experts are brought in to safely remove the cancer-causing material.

Does it ever make you wonder what may be hiding in your walls? Asbestos, the catch-all name for several fibrous materials that are found naturally in rock formations, was widely used for decades in the construction of homes and public buildings because of its strength, durability and other features. But researchers have long since concluded that asbestos fibres, when inhaled, can increase the risk of cancer and asbestosis, which occurs when the lungs are scarred, making it difficult to breathe.

Now, the Canadian Cancer Society and the Canadian Medical Association are urging the creation of a national registry so that Canadians can easily find out if their homes, offices, children's schools, community centres or other buildings they frequent were constructed using asbestos. The organizations commissioned a survey, which found that 82 per cent of Canadians support the creation of such a registry.

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Would this registry even do any good? After all, asbestos is only a risk when it is present in the air.

But consider that it's not easy to identify which materials contain asbestos just by looking at them. The concern is that homeowners or construction workers could be inadvertently exposed to asbestos during a renovation project because they simply don't know what they're dealing with.

It's a significant concern, considering that about 240,000 homes across Canada were insulated with materials that might contain asbestos over a period that stretched from the 1920s to the 1990s, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.

Protecting yourself from asbestos exposure requires careful measures and help from professionals who are trained to handle its safe removal.

The federal government is currently spending millions to remove asbestos from a number of Parliament buildings.

Despite the link between asbestos and cancer and a painstaking process to carefully remove it from Parliament Hill, Canada has been exporting asbestos to less-developed countries for years. The federal government spent years fighting worldwide efforts to list asbestos as a dangerous substance. It reversed that position last month after the Parti Québécois cancelled a loan promised by the previous Liberal government to reopen one of the province's asbestos mine's.

Would you want to know if your home or place of work contained asbestos?

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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