Australia has one of the highest incidence rates of malignant mesothelioma in the world - of which 90% of cases are caused by asbestos exposure. So what exactly is asbestos and what measures can you put in place to protect yourself and your family?
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a group of naturally occurring fibrous materials which have excellent durability, fire resistance and insulating properties. Because of these properties, asbestos was mined extensively in Australia and used in a wide variety of building and consumer products.
From December 2003, all forms of asbestos were banned in Australia but the legacy of asbestos remains in the built environment. Asbestos-containing materials are still found in one in three West Australian homes.
What are the dangers of asbestos?
Inhalation of loose airborne asbestos fibres can cause long-term health problems, including asbestosis, cancer of the lung, ovary and larynx and mesothelioma (cancer of the lining of the lung); which can take years, if not, decades to develop.
Asbestos fibres are released into the air when people handle asbestos-containing materials without following the correct safety procedures.
The fibres are about 50 to 200 times thinner than a strand of hair and in most cases invisible to the naked eye - making them easy to breathe in and become trapped deep in the lungs.
Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that starts from the mesothelial cells. These cells line the outer surface of most of the body's internal organs, forming a protective membrane called the mesothelium.
Some mesotheliomas form a tumour, while others grow along the mesothelium and form a thick covering. In later stages, mesothelioma may spread (metastasise) to other parts of the body.
According to the Western Australian Mesothelioma Register, there have been three waves of recorded increases in mesothelioma diagnoses linked to asbestos exposure.
The first wave affected WA asbestos miners who worked in the mining town of Wittenoom between 1943 and 1966. The second wave of people diagnosed were found to have worked in industries where it was commonplace to handle asbestos-containing materials e.g. construction workers and builders.
Our Education and Research Director, Terry Slevin, explains the more recent third wave of mesothelioma cases is a result of short-term or low-level exposure to asbestos in the home.
"With the burgeoning home renovating trend, particularly with ‘DIYers', we're now seeing a third wave of people being diagnosed, and in many cases it's because people aren't sure what they're doing when they're dealing with asbestos, or even able to recognise that asbestos is present," he said.
Where is it found?
Many products were manufactured using asbestos until the late 1980s - especially in building and construction materials.
|Common examples of asbestos||Less-commonly known asbestos-containing materials|
There are two asbestos-containing material groups:
• Bonded (non-friable) asbestos materials are made up of a bonding agent (such as cement) with asbestos fibres added. They usually contain less than 15 per cent of asbestos and normally don't release fibres unless they are disturbed, damaged or have deteriorated over time.
• Friable (loosely bound) asbestos materials are those which can be crumbled or reduced to powder by hand. Bonded asbestos can become friable if severely fire damaged or crusted. Friable asbestos materials are the most dangerous as the fibres can be released into the air.
How can I reduce my risk?
To reduce your risk of asbestos exposure you should:
• Know where asbestos-containing materials could be in your home and if in doubt, get materials tested.
• Perform maintenance to keep asbestos-containing materials in good condition by using paint or other surface finishes to bind the fibres together. Consider using enclosures and capping as appropriate to overlay asbestos fibro with another product.
• Replace asbestos cement materials if they are damaged or are being temporarily dismantled for any reason.
• Ensure all friable asbestos is only removed by a professionally licensed asbestos removalist.
• Plan ahead to prevent disturbing and releasing asbestos fibres, particularly when renovating or demolishing a structure that might contain asbestos (such as a house, garage or shed).
• Know the rules and regulations around asbestos- this includes how to correctly dispose of the material. It is illegal to dispose of asbestos waste in a domestic rubbish bin or during local government authority bulk verge collections.
If you decide to remove or do work with asbestos-containing materials you should:
• Work in a well-ventilated area or in the open air (but not on windy days).
• Use drop sheets to capture any loose asbestos-containing material.
• Thoroughly wet down the material before you start by spraying the surface with water or a 1:10 polyvinyl acetate.
• Use non-powered hand tools as these generate smaller amounts of dust and waste chips that are coarser than those generated when using high-speed power tools.
• Pull out (or drive in) any nails first to help remove sheeting with minimal breakage.
• Carefully lower (not drop) the sheets to the ground and stack on two layers of polyethene sheeting which is at least 0.2 mm thick (e.g. heavy-duty builders' plastic). Alternatively, you can place asbestos into heavy-duty plastic bags.
• Avoid cutting or breaking the asbestos cement products.
kNOw Asbestos in your Home - online e-learning module
We've partnered with the Department of Health to launch a free online learning module - kNOw Asbestos in Your Home.
The course is targeted at home renovators aiming to extend their ‘DIY' skills and knowledge around identifying, safely handling and disposing of asbestos-containing materials.
Access the free learning module, here: https://elearning.cancer.org.au/
kNOw Workplace Cancer
Our kNOw Workplace Cancer fact sheet is designed for both employers and employees and can be accessed, here: www.cancer.org.au/workcancer