Information at a glance
1 Asbestos and your health
2 Asbestos in your home
3 Asbestos and your neighbours
4 Asbestos and rental properties
5 Asbestos information and support services
6 Contracting an asbestos removalist
7 Testing for asbestos
8 Disposing of asbestos yourself
C Complete set (2.2MB)
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a generic name that is given to a group of fibrous silicate materials that occur naturally in the environment.
For many decades asbestos was mined and widely used. Due to its unique combination of flexibility, tensile strength, insulation and chemical inertness it became widely used by industry from the 1800s. It is the only naturally occurring mineral that can be spun and woven like cotton or wool into useful fibres and fabrics. Asbestos fibres are 50 to 200 times thinner than a human hair, can float in the air for a long time, can be invisible to the naked eye and can be breathed into the lungs.
Examples of asbestos fibrous silicate materials found in the natural environment
In the past, asbestos was mined and manufactured into many different materials. Materials containing asbestos were very common in the Australian residential building industry between the 1940s and late 1980s before their production stopped.
The three most common types of asbestos that were mainly used in a wide range of products are:
- Chrysotile (white asbestos)
- Crocidolite (blue asbestos)
- Amosite (brown or grey asbestos)
Blue asbestos is known to cause the most harm as the fibres are relatively long and thin, therefore they are more likely to reach the lungs rather than the curlier fibres of white asbestos.
An example of loosely-bound 'friable' asbestos (left) and white, brown and blue loosely-bound asbestos (right)
Why is asbestos dangerous?
In the early 1900s medical practitioners began to raise concerns that exposure to asbestos was causing deaths of asbestos workers through respiratory diseases and by the 1930s there was a substantial accumulation of scientific knowledge concerning asbestos related diseases.
Almost everyone in our society has been exposed to some asbestos fibres, but for most people the exposure and the risk is very small. When asbestos is disturbed it forms a dust of tiny fibres and this dust can easily be breathed in. Asbestos fibres can split down, reducing in size until they are small enough to travel deep into the body where they pierce the lining of the lungs. The body does not have a mechanism for removing materials from this deep within the lungs and as the asbestos fibres are embedded in the lining, they will remain in the body for the rest of a person's life. Asbestos related diseases are caused by the inhalation or ingestion of these particles of asbestos. The diseases caused by exposure include asbestosis, pleural plaques, lung cancer, mesothelioma and cancer of the intestinal tract.
Asbestos related diseases are generally associated with inhaling asbestos over a long period of time. However, a small number of people may develop mesothelioma even after brief exposure. The reason why this occurs is not known so it is always important to keep exposure to asbestos fibres as low as possible. Over 2,500 people are diagnosed with asbestos related diseases in Australia each year and the number is rising.
People who have been exposed to asbestos fibres in their workplace are at greater risk. Fields of such work include:
- Mining or milling asbestos
- Manufacture and repair of goods using raw asbestos fibres, such as brake linings
- Using products containing asbestos, for instance in building and construction, heating, shipyards, power stations, boiler making and plumbing
- Alteration, repair or demolition of buildings or other structures containing asbestos
- N.B. Some people have contracted mesothelioma after brief and unexpected exposure - others 30 years after home renovations, after holiday work as a labourer, or as a result of shaking and washing asbestos-dusted clothing
Asbestos in Australia
Although asbestos in Australia was mined primarily in West Australia, Queensland and New South Wales, its widespread processing, manufacturing and usage has resulted in an increasing number of asbestos related diseases (ARD) in all states. There can be a 20-30 year latent period after asbestos exposure before an ARD develops, which means many Victorians are yet to be diagnosed with lung diseases such as asbestosis, pleural plaques, lung cancer or mesothelioma.
Asbestos has been used in a wide variety of products and may still be found in many products. Examples of these include:
- Asbestos cement sheet pipe and products used for water supply and sewage piping, casings for electrical wires, fire protection material, chemical tanks, electrical switchboards and residential and industrial building materials such as cement sheeting
- Friction products such as clutch facings and brake linings for cars
- Products containing asbestos paper such as table pads and heat protective mats, heat and electrical wire insulation, small appliance components and underlying material for sheet flooring
- Asbestos textile products such as packing components, roofing materials and heaters
- Other products including ceiling and floor tiles, gaskets and packings, paints, coatings and sealants
Asbestos products were gradually removed from production during the 1980s. Between 1981 and 1983, asbestos flat sheeting was phased out. In 1985, corrugated products (roofing and cladding) were also taken out of production. Asbestos-lined piping was not made after 1987 and in 2003 brake pads and linings ceased to contain asbestos.
New materials are no longer allowed to contain asbestos fibres and industry is no longer able to import, manufacture, supply, store, transport, sell, use, reuse, install and replace asbestos-containing materials.
Despite an Australia-wide ban on asbestos being sold, reused and/or imported into the country after 31 December, 2003, some asbestos materials have been imported into Australia. Thus, if you have concerns about a product/materials, have it tested by a National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA) accredited laboratory: nata.asn.au