Asbestos is a known carcinogen (cancer causing agent) . Exposure to asbestos fibres can increase your risk of developing an asbestos-related disease, including cancer.
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a group of naturally occurring fibrous minerals (chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, anthophyllite, tremolite and actinolite), which have excellent durability, fire resistance and insulating properties. Because of these properties, asbestos was used in a variety of products, especially building products.
Asbestos in Australia
In Australia, asbestos was both mined and imported. During this time, Australia was one of the highest users, for our population, of asbestos. The two main mines were at Woodsreef NSW, where chrysotile (white asbestos) was mined until 1983, and Wittenoom WA, where crocidolite (blue asbestos) was mined until 1966. Smaller asbestos mines also operated in Tasmania and South Australia.
Asbestos-containing materials in Australia were mainly asbestos cement products such as ‘fibro' sheets/board or cement pipe. Asbestos was also used in other products such as:
- insulation (lagging, loose fill or spray insulation),
- automotive parts (brake pads, clutch linings),
- floor tiles (and their adhesives),
- textiles (blankets, rope, wraps used in fuses, wood heater seals etc.),
- expansion joints, joining putty,
- textured paints and
- many other products.
The use of asbestos-containing materials in building products was stopped in the 1980's. A national ban on asbestos, and all products containing asbestos, their use, importation, storage, sale, supply, or installation (except for disposal purposes) came into effect on 31 December 2003 throughout Australia. This was when production of automotive friction parts containing asbestos stopped.
Australian workers installed asbestos-containing materials; these materials still remain in place in workplaces and homes. About one third of all Australian homes built or renovated before 1990 contain asbestos products.
What makes asbestos dangerous?
All forms of asbestos occur as fibrous bundles that can be separated down to individual fibres; these fibres can be 50 to 200 times thinner than a human hair. At such small sizes they are invisible to the naked eye, are able to remain airborne for long periods and can travel in air currents. Asbestos fibres can be found in the air from the breakdown of natural asbestos deposits and manufactured asbestos-containing materials.
Asbestos-containing materials are categorised into two groups:
• Bonded (non-friable) asbestos materials are made up of a bonding agent (such as cement) with asbestos added to give strength and fire resistance; and
• Friable (loosely bound) asbestos materials are those which can be crumbled, pulverized or reduced to powder by hand pressure and also includes broken, damaged or weathered bonded asbestos products.
Friable asbestos-containing materials are dangerous because the asbestos fibres can easily get into the air and may be inhaled by people living or working nearby. Bonded materials usually contain a smaller proportion of asbestos (usually less than 15%). If bonded materials are in good condition, they do not normally release any fibres. However if bonded asbestos materials are damaged, badly weathered or disturbed (e.g. using power tools to drill into them) they can become friable and easily release fibres.
Health risks associated with asbestos
Because of their size, asbestos fibres can be easily breathed into the lungs. Once there, it is hard for your body to remove the fibres and they can cause inflammation and scarring. This can lead to an increased risk of developing long-term health problems, including asbestosis and benign pleural abnormalities, mesothelioma and cancer of the lung, ovarian and larynx. These diseases can take many years, even decades, to develop.
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Risk factors for developing asbestos related diseases
There are many factors that increase a person's risk of developing an asbestos-related disease, including the:
• Length of time a person is exposed to airborne asbestos
• Concentration or levels of asbestos fibres in the air breathed
• Frequency of exposure to asbestos fibres
• Time since exposure occurred
• Age at which exposure occurred
• Exposed individual's susceptibility
• If the exposed person is a smoker (or was a smoker).
How do I avoid exposure to asbestos?
In the workplace
Many asbestos-containing materials still remain in place throughout Australia. Tradespeople such as painters, electricians and builders are still at risk of exposure to the asbestos. If there is a possibility that you might be exposed to asbestos at work, such as during the renovation of old buildings (pre-1990 construction), working on mobile equipment or plant (pre-2003 models) you should always eliminate or reduce your exposure by following the risk management process and using the hierarchy of control specific to working with asbestos. WorkSafe WA designates specific safe work practices that must be followed to control the risk of exposure to asbestos in the workplace.
For fact sheets specifically designed for employees and employers on asbestos in the workplace, employers legal obligations and what you can do to reduce your risk of developing an asbestos related cancer please visit the kNOw Workplace Cancer asbestos web-page.
In the home
Homeowners may be exposed to asbestos fibres during accidental damage to asbestos-containing materials, or as a result of the unsafe handling of asbestos-containing material (such as cutting materials with power tools or washing them with high pressure sprays), either by tradespeople or by the homeowners themselves (during DIY home renovations).
To minimise your risk of exposure to asbestos at home, it is important for homeowners to identify if and where any asbestos-containing products were used within their home (you should also consider any structural additions, sheds, outhouses or fences on your property as well). Some asbestos-containing products seem easy to recognise, although others are not. Asbestos-containing materials may be covered up by other products, painted, look similar to non-asbestos products or may be in places you don't think to look.
As a general guide, if your home was built or renovated:
Before the mid 1980's It is very likely to contain asbestos-containing materials
Mid 1980's to 1990 It is likely to contain asbestos-containing materials
After 1990 It is unlikely to contain asbestos-containing materials
You shouldn't always rely on dates or visual inspections to confirm if the material contains asbestos. If you are unsure if your home contains asbestos products download the free ACM Check app for your phone either from the App Store or Google Play.
The only sure way to verify if a material in your home contains asbestos is to have a sample of it tested at an accredited laboratory. You can find an accredited laboratory by visiting the National Association of Testing Authorities (website or calling 1800 621 666).
If you are unsure if a material in your home contains asbestos, you should always treat it as though it does contain asbestos.
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If you are planning to do a home renovation, you should always think asbestos.
It is important that you know about the potential health risks and the safety precautions required before renovating a house that may contain asbestos. Removing asbestos safely can be a problematic. For this reason it is best carried out by licensed professionals. If you are considering a renovation that may involve you working with asbestos-containing material take the time to complete the free kNOw asbestos in your home online eLearning module. This module will provide invaluable information about how to identify asbestos, understand the risks, and develop safe work practices when working with or removing small amounts of asbestos-containing materials.
National Asbestos Exposure Register
The purpose of the register is to have a record of potential exposure in case an individual develops an asbestos related disease in the future. If you think you may have been exposed to asbestos either during the course of your employment, at home or in the community, you can register your details on the National Asbestos Exposure Register.