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Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral fibre that was widely used within the construction industry throughout the world for its fire retardant properties. Asbestos fibres cannot be broken down as they are resistant to chemicals, heat and do not dissolve in water. Asbestos, predominantly chrysotile and crocidolite, was mined throughout Australia until late 1984. Unfortunately, from the 1950s through to the 1970s, Australia had one of the highest use of asbestos materials per capita in the world. Records also show that between 1930 and 1983, approximately 1.5 million tonnes of all forms of asbestos was imported and distributed throughout Australia. A lot of this asbestos still remains in many residential, commercial and industrial buildings to this day.

Approximately one third of all homes built in Australia contain asbestos containing materials (ACMs). As a general guideline, if your house was built before the mid-1980s, it is highly likely that asbestos containing materials would be present. If your house was built between the mid-1980s and 1990, it is likely that it would have some asbestos containing materials present. If your house was built between 1990-2004 is it unlikely but not unheard of to contain asbestos containing materials. If it was built post 2004 then it is very unlikely to contain asbestos materials due to legislation rolled out within Australia at the end of 2003.

Asbestos containing materials can be categorised as friable or non-friable. Non-friable asbestos is also called bonded asbestos because the asbestos fibres are ‘bonded’ into other materials such as cement. Bonded asbestos is the most common type of asbestos found within our built environment. Friable asbestos is the worse of the two and can either be found in its pure loose fibre form or within materials that were once classified as bonded asbestos but have deteriorated over time; freeing the asbestos fibres from their once bonded, stable matrix. Friable asbestos is more likely to become airborne and in turn become respirable by individuals; this poses a serious health risk to anyone that interacts with it without the proper training and protective equipment. It is harder to visually classify an area as containing friable asbestos without taking samples to be analysed by a laboratory as the loose asbestos fibres are near invisible to the naked eye.

Asbestos containing materials were very versatile and were easily moulded and shaped into various sizes and shapes. This allowed for extensive use of asbestos in the past. Areas where ACM’s can be found include (but not limited to):

  • roof sheeting and capping
  • insulation materials
  • guttering
  • gables, eaves/soffits, water pipes and flues
  • wall and ceiling sheeting (flat or a weatherboard style)
  • vinyl floor coverings and vinyl tiles
  • lagging materials
  • carpet and tile underlays
  • zelemite backing boards on electrical switchboards
  • flexible building boards
  • imitation brick cladding
  • fencing
  • carports and sheds
  • waterproof membranes
  • telecommunications pits
  • window mastic
  • expansion joints
  • packing under beams
  • concrete formwork

Both friable and non-friable asbestos pose a significant health risk to all workers and occupants of the site if the materials are not properly maintained or carefully removed.

Health effects of asbestos

Asbestos is a known carcinogen with the inhalation of asbestos fibres associated with increased incidences of a number of diseases including pleural disease, asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. Even limited or short-term exposure to asbestos fibres can be dangerous with only one fibre having the potential to cause serious long term harm. Signs and symptoms of asbestos related diseases can take anywhere from 10 to 50 years to develop and become detectable within the body. Due to these health risks, it is always important to have professionals assess the situation before you proceed with any work to do with asbestos or suspected asbestos containing materials. When dealing with asbestos, you can never be too careful when your health is at risk.

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