Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral, predominantly being utilised for its fire-retardant properties. Asbestos fibres cannot be broken down as they are resistant to a multitude of strenuous conditions including but not limited to; chemical and heat exposure, prolonged water exposure and maintain a high static strength after long term exposure to typical adverse weather events. Asbestos, predominantly chrysotile and crocidolite, was mined throughout Australia until late 1984. Unfortunately, from the 1950s through to the 1970s, Records also show that between 1930 and 1983, approximately 1.5 million tonnes of all forms of asbestos were imported and distributed throughout Australia. A lot of this asbestos remains in many residential, commercial, and industrial settings to this day and continues to pose a significant health risk to any individual that may encounter this hazardous material.
The six forms of asbestos are comprised of two mineral families, Serpentine and Amphibole asbestos, with Amphibole presenting a greater health risk. The reason for this is due to the physical structure of amphibole asbestos, the fibres resemble a needle like appearance and exposure to this from of asbestos is considered highly carcinogenic at a greatly reduced exposure rate to that of serpentine asbestos. Serpentine asbestos fibres as the name suggest are curly in appearance are a lesser health risk than their counterpart, however all forms of asbestos should be handled with extreme caution.
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 may be present. If your house was built between the mid-1980s and 1990, it is likely that it may 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.
Friable and non-friable Asbestos
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. Non-friable asbestos is the most common type of asbestos found within our built environment and is predominantly utilised for its strength and diversity as a raw building material.
Friable asbestos is the most hazardous of the two and can either be found in its pure loose fibre form or within materials that were once classified as non-friable 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.
If you are ever unsure if non-friable asbestos cement sheeting has become friable or suspect the presence of loose friable fibres it is of vital importance to organise an inspection by a trained professional to determine the immediate and future risks of asbestos exposure and ensure no individuals safety is compromised.
Where can you find Asbestos?
Asbestos was once used in Australia in more than 3,000 different products. From 31 December 2003, the total ban on manufacture, use, reuse, import, transport, storage or sale of all forms of asbestos came into force.
Friable asbestos products have been commonly used in commercial and industrial settings since the late 1800s for fireproofing, soundproofing and insulation. Some friable products were also used in houses and may still be found in houses built before 1990.
In Australia, asbestos cement materials were first manufactured in the 1920s and were commonly used in the manufacture of residential building materials from the mid-1940s until the late 1980s. During the 1980s asbestos cement materials were phased out in favour of asbestos-free products.
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
- 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
- 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.
How does asbestos affect your health?
Asbestos is a known carcinogen with the inhalation of asbestos fibres associated with increased incidences of several diseases including pleural disease, asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. The Mesothelioma Centre reports that deaths are expected to equate to around 25,000 from the illness over the next four decades, however this number can be decreased by utilising professional environmental services and following strict safety protocols to effectively manage this incessant health hazard. 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. Going forward, it will be crucial to continue to raise asbestos awareness all over the country to limit the number of homeowners and workers who are exposed to the deadly fibre. When dealing with asbestos, you can never be too careful when your health is at risk.