What is Asbestos?
The NOHSC Codes of Practice describe asbestos as ‘the fibrous form of mineral silicates belonging to the serpentine and amphibole groups of rock-forming minerals.’ The fibre was used in more than 3,000 products, including asbestos cement products (fibre cement sheets and pipes), insulation products (loose-fill, pipe and boiler insulation), friction materials (clutch plates, brake linings), gaskets, vinyl floor tiles and linoleum, electrical meter boards, caulking, wiring, roofing materials, packing materials, paints and protective paper to name a few.
Individual asbestos fibres are invisible to the naked eye, can stay airborne a long time and be and easily inhaled into the lungs.
Where asbestos is present, the risk to people is significant both in terms of health and legal liability, particularly if measures to manage risks are not in place. Surprisingly, the use of all forms of asbestos has been banned federally in Australia since 31 December 2003. The ban does not apply to asbestos installed prior to this date (e.g. asbestos materials in houses).
Health Effects of Asbestos
Asbestos remains a public health concern. Inhalation of asbestos has been linked to four respiratory diseases: Asbestosis, Mesothelioma, Lung Cancer and Fibrosis. The latency period between exposure to asbestos and the onset of the diseases is generally between 15 and 40 years, with symptoms generally not displaying until the advanced stages of illness.
Asbestosis and Mesothelioma can not be effectively treated, and most persons suffering from Mesothelioma unfortunately die within twelve months of diagnosis.
The most harmful asbestos fibres are invisible to the naked eye and easily breathed into the lungs. Studies have shown fibres 5–10 μm long and <0.25 μm in diameter were associated most strongly with lung cancer mortality. These particulates are called respirable fibres. Asbestos is commonly suggested in the industry as the ‘silent killer’. The reason for this term is because persons being exposed to asbestos, even in high concentrations, would not be aware of the dangers or even exposure. Many believe there would be an itching sensation, scratching, shortness of breath, smell or visual indication of the airborne dust. This isn’t the case. In fact, it completely goes undetected. Asbestos air monitoring could only detect asbestos airborne fibre concentrations.
Asbestos can be identified and analysed by PLM (Polarised Light Microscopy) with dispersion staining technique. Asbestos fibres such as Crocidolite (blue asbestos) and Amosite (brown asbestos) are most hazardous to health. While Chrysotile (white asbestos) is most common. The word ‘asbestos’ comes from the ancient Greek term, meaning “unquenchable” or “inextinguishable”. Health effects having an accumulation of asbestos inside the lungs are massive. The contraction and retraction of your lungs over time, whilst breathing, causes scratching which in turn causes scarring, inflammation and ultimately cancer or respiratory diseases.
Asbestos is an IARC Group 1 carcinogen. Inhalation of airborne asbestos fibres can cause death and therefore concentrations of airborne asbestos are a risk that must be controlled. Airborne asbestos fibres can result from: the release of asbestos fibres through the unsafe removal or disturbance of cement sheeting, performance of many ordinary tasks such replacing certain types of ducting or insulating materials, plant, accidental contact with asbestos materials causing the fibres to break free, and failure to adequately maintain an asbestos containing material resulting in the release of asbestos fibres.
Types of Asbestos
Asbestos unique combination of flexibility, tensile strength, insulation and chemical inertness, it is the only naturally occurring mineral that can be spun and woven like cotton or wool into useful building products and fabrics. Asbestos fibres are 50 to 200 times thinner than a human hair.
There are three types of asbestos minerals that were mainly used in a wide range of products and uses. These are listed here from the most hazardous to the least:
- Crocidolite (Blue 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 deeper parts of the lungs rather than the curlier fibres of white asbestos. Crocidolite is harder than the other varieties of amphibole asbestos. The fibres are extremely thin, sharp and can cause significant damage once lodged within the lungs.
- Amosite (Brown Asbestos)
Amosite Asbestos are generally very long, thin and robust fibres. Bundles of Amosite tend to separate into smaller groups of needle-like fibres and are very hazardous to health only second to Blue Asbestos. Amosite fibres do not normally fray or have split ends, but rather have flat or knife-like ends. Amosite was used in a vast array of applications and was very popular for use as an additive in building materials that it was the second-most popular asbestos type after Chrysotile.
- Chrysotile (White Asbestos)
Chrysotile is by far the most common type of asbestos used. Fibres tend to fray, are very flexible which promoted their use and advantages within building products, namely fibre cement, insulation products such as cloth, rope and other uses which required extra bonding or work-ability. Chrysotile fibres bundles can be described as white, silky and the flexibility of these fibres make it less likely to reach the deepest part of the lungs if not disturbed by use of force or friction. Chrysotile Asbestos is still found to be mined in parts of the world today including Russia, China, Brazil, Canada and Kazakhstan. Chrysotile is still being imported by major manufacturing countries such as India, Thailand, Indonesia and China with products making their way into western counties that have banned Asbestos. World Health Organisations are calling for widespread condemnation.
There are two main categories which all forms of asbestos fall under; it should be noted that each of these types have very different characteristics and differ substantially in their potential to cause harm. The method of removal of each of these types of asbestos also differs substantially along with the cost associated with the removal.
1. NON-FRIABLE (Bonded) Asbestos (tightly bound)
Bonded materials containing asbestos are the most common. These are mainly found in Australia in the domestic and Commercial domains. The construction industry widely used in general fibre cement (fibro) building products in many applications. They are mainly made up of a bonding compound (such as cement), with typically up to 30% asbestos. Bonded materials containing asbestos are solid, quite rigid and the asbestos fibres are tightly bound into the material. They are commonly called ‘fibro’ short for fibrous, ‘asbestos cement’ or ‘AC sheeting’.
If you come across fibre cement sheeting and not sure whether it contains asbestos, get advice from professional consultants such as Asbestex. Sheets or lining were nailed on with flat head nails which are usually visible under painted surfaces unlike gyprock or plasterboard.
If you can see the branding stamped on the underside reading ‘Wunderlich’ ‘Hardiflex’ ‘Tilux’ ‘Zonolite’ ‘Shadowline’ ‘Galbestos’ ‘Firestop’ ‘Durasbestos’ ‘Durawall’ you can certainly presume the product contains asbestos. The only way to be positive is to contact Asbestex for analysis. Sampling is relatively inexpensive. If you happen to come across the international sticker ‘a’ for asbestos symbol (incorporated into our logo) this means DANGER this material contains asbestos. Any non-friable asbestos over the amount of 10 square metres must be removed by a ‘CLASS B’ asbestos licence holder.
Some examples of materials classified as bonded asbestos are:
- Wall and Ceiling sheeting
- Corrugated roofing
- Asbestos Pipes and Vents
- Fencing Panels
- Water tanks
- Mechanical breaks
2. FRIABLE Asbestos (loosely bound or dust)
Loosely bound materials containing asbestos are far more hazardous than bonded (see above). They were primarily used in commercial and industrial settings for fire proofing, sound proofing and insulation, sub-floor linings and can be also found in some old domestic heaters, stoves, hot water systems, associated pipe lagging, in the backing of vinyl linoleum floor coverings and mill board. Dust known as ACD (Asbestos Contaminated Dust) are also a major problem we encounter on a near daily basis. These materials can be made of up to 100% asbestos. They are quite loose and can be turned to dust with very light pressure, such as crushing with your hand. Loosely bound materials containing asbestos are very dangerous as the asbestos fibres can get into the air very easily and inhaled. They must only be handled and removed by a contractor with a ‘CLASS A’ asbestos removal licence.
Some examples of materials classified as friable asbestos are:
- Fire retardant
- Pipe lagging
- Gaskets and seals
- Fire Damaged fibre cement
How do I know if I have Asbestos at home or work?
Asbestex has a team of qualified consultants and technicians that can conduct comprehensive visual inspections of your home, work place or project. We also offer pre-purchase inspections. We will advise you of the location and whether risks may be present. Not all asbestos containing materials pose hazards and risks. Once we have determined the locations of these materials we will give our recommendations on how to proceed and what to look for. We also give free advice as how to manage asbestos at your premises or workplace.
Asbestos - and what to look for
How do i know if i'm being exposed to asbestos?
Cases of people being exposed to asbestos are surprisingly on the rise. This may be due to the influx of the renovations of structures that were built in the 1920’s through to the 1980’s. You may become exposed to asbestos if it is disturbed or damaged during a refurbishment, renovation or accident. In some instances people are exposed to deadly asbestos fibres simply by weathered or deteriorated products such as un-painted wall sheeting, damaged lining or old corrugated roof sheeting which are now showing their age.
Disturbed asbestos products in an internal settings, such as a bathroom, can stay airborne for up to 48 hours. Unfortunately it is through negligence and/or lack of awareness, contractors or home owners put themselves and families at risk the most. People may be exposed to asbestos in their workplace, their communities or their homes by unsafe work practices happening near them.
If products containing asbestos are disturbed, microscopic asbestos fibres are released into the air. When asbestos fibres are inhaled, they may get trapped in the lungs and remain there for a lifetime. Over time, these fibres can cause scarring and inflammation, which can affect breathing and lead to serious health problems and ultimately cancer or a dust disease.
The most harmful asbestos fibres are invisible to the naked eye and easily breathed into the lungs. These particulates are called respirable fibres. Asbestos is commonly suggested in the industry as the ‘silent killer’. The reason for this term is because persons being exposed to asbestos, even in high concentrations, would not be aware of the dangers. There is no itching sensation, scratching, shortness of breath, smell or visual indication of the airborne dust.
Fortunately, Asbestex has the technology to detect airborne asbestos fibre concentrations. We can offer asbestos air sampling devices in your residential home or work place. Air Sampling Pumps are inexpensive to operate, safe and extremely accurate in measuring concentrations of airborne asbestos fibres.
Who is at risk for an asbestos-related disease?
Everybody is exposed to asbestos at some time during their life.
Very low levels of asbestos may be present in the air, water, and soil. In some cities tap water can contain asbestos from naturally occurring rock seams and shelves through a catchment. However, most people do not become ill from their brief exposure or digestion.
People who commonly become ill from asbestos are usually those who have been exposed to very high concentrations in a short period of time or exposed to prolong concentrations over a medium-long period of time or regular basis – most often in an occupation where they work or live directly with the material or through substantial environmental contact or renovation.
Exposure to asbestos may increase the risk of asbestosis, other non-malignant lung and plural disorders, lung cancer, mesothelioma, and other cancers. Smokers who are also exposed to asbestos have a greatly increased risk of lung cancer.
In most cases you will not get ill living with asbestos. However, the asbestos you do live with must be well maintained, encapsulated and in sound condition to eliminate or lower potential health risks. Living or working with no asbestos materials is the still safest option.
What is an asbestos materials survey report?
Surveys are the best option before purchasing a property, renovating or demolition. An Asbestos Register is required for any work place in NSW. In many cases it is the responsibility of the property owner, builder or Strata Manager to properly identify the hazardous substances on a property or project.
You can request a quote for an ‘asbestos survey and building materials report’. This is a comprehensive survey to determine the presence, location, extent, condition and recommendations of suspected asbestos in all areas of your home or workplace. This report includes sampling and testing of materials attached to your report.
I have been exposed to asbestos, what should I do?
The last thing you should do is panic. It is very important to assess the amount of your exposure after the incident. Time / Exposure = Risk. If you were undertaking renovation or unknowingly disturbed asbestos, the first thing we recommend you do is exit the area to a safe distance away from the material. Place any suspected contaminated clothing in a sealed plastic bag. Isolate the area you think is contaminated with asbestos and de-contaminate your self with disposable wet wipes. Ensure you do not cross-contaminate other areas from dust/debris on shoes. Contact Asbestex for immediate assistance. DO NOT VACUUM the area. Domestic vacuum cleaners are unsuitable and should NEVER BE USED even with a ‘HEPA’ filter. Asbestex offers 24/7 emergency assistance for clean ups and cordoning off contaminated areas.
Being exposed to asbestos once, even under moderate concentrations, would not be catastrophic in most cases. However, if you think you were exposed to high levels of asbestos over a long period of time you may be at increased risk of certain cancers or respiratory diseases. Not many people are familiar with asbestos and not many people know what materials contain asbestos.
There is no way of medically diagnosing asbestos exposure days, months or even years after your exposure. This is because minute particles cannot be detected even with the most sophisticated x-ray machines available to us today.
Talk to your doctor about whether you should get regular health check-ups to look for signs of asbestos-related diseases. This is especially important if you are a smoker or worked with asbestos regularly. You may want to ask about seeing a doctor experienced with asbestos-related diseases. Some doctors recommend that people with heavy asbestos exposure get regular chest x-rays or CT scans and lung function tests.
Again, these tests can not detect asbestos fibres themselves, but they can sometimes find problems, including some cancers, that could be caused by the fibres. In fact, some expert groups advise that asbestos exposure alone is enough to consider getting regular CT scans to screen for lung cancer, regardless of a person’s smoking history.
If you are a previous employee, tradesman or family member of someone who used to work with asbestos and have symptoms that might be related to asbestos exposure such as shortness of breath, a new or worsening cough, coughing up blood, pain or tightness in the chest, trouble swallowing, or unintended weight loss. See your doctor promptly for any respiratory illness.
If you reside in Sydney, NSW, a few centres offer medical check-ups that specialise in asbestos. We recommend iCare – Dust Diseases. iCare can be visited at https://www.icare.nsw.gov.au/contact-us/general-enquiries/
If you think you may have been exposed to asbestos negligently by a tradesmen or contractor it is best you seek legal advice. Taking legal action against persons or companies for any asbestos related case can be very costly and time consuming. Litigation should only be considered by persons physically diagnosed with an asbestos related disease rather than assumed exposure.