What is asbestos?
Asbestos can pose some serious health risks if exposed to it, so learn more about this mineral and how to stay safe.
Alexander Pan avatar
Written by Alexander Pan
Updated over a week ago

You've likely heard about asbestos and how it's dangerous for you, but what exactly is this stuff and how exactly does it harm you? Those are the questions we'll be tackling here, as well as what you can do to stay safe around this dangerous stuff.

Just remember that if you need support or someone to talk to, our Sonder support team is available 24/7 to chat whenever you need it.

What exactly is asbestos?

Asbestos is a name for a group of naturally-occurring fibrous silicate mineral. Due to its ability to withstand heat, erosion and decay, as well has having fire and water resistant properties, it was a material used in building products in Australia from the 1940s to 1987 before getting banned and phased out.

Asbestos-containing materials include flat and corrugated sheeting, cement pipes, insulation, floor tiles, adhesives, roofing, automobile parts such as brake pads, textiles, and textured paints.

How can asbestos affect my health?

Asbestos is fibrous and those tiny fibres can be easily breathed in, where they can pose a serious risk to your health. Breathing in asbestos fibres increases the risk of causing asbestosis, cancers of the lung, ovary and larnyx, and mesothelioma.

The symptoms of diseases caused by asbestos fibres don't usually appear until about 20 to 30 years after exposure. The risk of developing serious health problems depends on factors including:

  • The length of time you are exposed to airborne asbestos fibres

  • The amount of asbestos fibres in the air breathed

  • The frequency of exposure to asbestos fibres

  • The time since exposure occurred

  • Your age at which exposure occurred

  • The type and size of asbestos fibres.

Generally speaking, there are small quantities of asbestos fibres in the air at all times and are breathed in by everyone. However, the amount present isn't enough to cause any health problems.

People who have suffered from health problems related to asbestos exposure have generally worked in the asbestos mining or milling industry, or industries involved in making or installing asbestos products. Immediate families of these people were also affected. In all these situations, there was high exposure to asbestos fibres, either from the processes involved or from the clothes of the workers.

How do I check if my home or workplace has asbestos?

As it is impossible to identify asbestos by simply looking at it, you will need to get a proper assessment done by an asbestos professional if you're worried that your home contains this stuff.

NSW homeowners can access the Loose-fill Asbestos Insulation Register here, which lists all the properties in the state that contain loose-fill asbestos insulation. For more in-depth information, head over to the Australian Asbestos Safety government website here.

For workplaces, work health and safety (WHS) laws prohibit work involving asbestos and requires the material to be removed by a licensed removalist. Furthermore, WHS laws state that buildings built before December 31, 2003, are required to have an asbestos register which lists all the identified or assumed asbestos in the workplace.

If you're not sure if your workplace has asbestos, talk to your employer or health and safety representative about your concerns. You can also contact your WHS regulator in your state or territory here if you want more information on what to do.

What can I do to stay safe?

Inhalation of asbestos fibres is the main way that asbestos enters the body. Even if your home or workplace contains asbestos in its building material, this doesn't mean your health is at risk. If the building material is in sound condition and left undisturbed, there's not a significant health risk.

Buildings containing asbestos become a high health risk if:

  • Fibro or bonded asbestos sheeting is broken, damaged or mishandled as this means asbestos fibres can become airborne.

  • Materials such as pipe lagging and sprayed roof insulation asbestos fibres are not bound in a matrix. These high concentrations of fibres are more likely to be released into the atmosphere when disturbed.

If you live or work near material thought to be contaminated with asbestos fibres, there are a number of short-term precautions you can take to minimise exposure, including:

  • Spraying with water to prevent soil/dust from becoming airborne, being careful around electrical fittings.

  • Covering with plastic sheeting or a tarpaulin if possible to avoid exposure to the weather.

  • Preventing access by children, and/or pets.

  • Cover children's toys.

  • Use wet clean up procedures rather than dry sweeping or vacuuming.

  • If loose fibre asbestos insulation may have been installed, do not enter the roof space and restrict access to the roof cavity through the man-hole and vents.

An alternative solution is to remove the products containing asbestos. Removal of loose/friable asbestos or amounts of bonded asbestos sheeting greater than 10 square metres must be done by a licensed person. For the safety of yourself, your family, friends, and/or work colleagues, it's recommended that you get licensed asbestos removalists to remove any asbestos-containing materials.

For details and regulations regarding asbestos removal in your state or territory, head over here.

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Image credit: Curtis Droppelman at Flickr

All content is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice.

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