Insights into the Health Risks and History of Asbestos in Australia
Once heralded as a miracle material, asbestos has turned into a nightmare for countries that mined or used it for decades. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), asbestos is “one of the most important occupational carcinogens.”
Australia is one of the countries to be hardest hit by asbestos issues. The Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency (ASEA) estimates there are around 4,000 deaths annually from asbestos-related diseases in the country. That translates to around 11 deaths per day.
Below we take a closer look at the history of asbestos in Australia, the types of asbestos that were in use and the illnesses they cause.
History of Asbestos in Australia
As in many other countries, Australia has a troubled and traumatic history with asbestos. As far back as 1911, a Royal Commission into working conditions in gold mines in the country found there was widespread lung disease. As a result, ventilation laws were introduced.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, the Inspector of Factories and Shops in Western Australia reported on the effects of asbestos dust on the lungs of workers in the James Hardie Factory in Perth. In 1939, the Western Australian Commissioner of Public Health and Chief Inspector of Factories discovered respiratory disorders among James Hardie workers.
From the 1930s to the 1980s, asbestos was mixed with cement and used in construction. Other uses included insulation of machines, gaskets, seals and brake linings for cars.
The three most commonly used types of asbestos were chrysotile (white asbestos), crocidolite (blue asbestos) and amosite (brown asbestos).
During the 1950s, spray coatings containing asbestos were popular additions to home interiors, as were vinyl sheet coverings. It’s been estimated that by the 1980s, around one in three homes were made using asbestos-containing materials.
From the 1960s onwards, reports about the adverse health effects of asbestos trickled in from around the world. The public started to associate asbestos with cancer and lung disease in the following decade. Laws banning asbestos use began to come into effect. However, despite the known health risks, a total ban wasn´t enforced until 2003.
Types of Asbestos
Officially there are six different types of asbestos:
Chrysotile (white asbestos)
Chrysotile is the principal commercial form of asbestos and the most commonly used type in Australia. It was used in roofing, ceilings, walls and flooring. This form of asbestos is different from the other five in that its fibres are serpentine – curly.
Crocidolite (blue asbestos)
Crocidolite is the most dangerous form of asbestos. Its fibres are straight and therefore easier to inhale than curly-ended fibres.
Crocidolite is known for its resistance to high temperatures and strong acids. It was used in insulation, fireproofing, cement sheets and ceiling tiles. Although the mineral was the third most used asbestos type in Australia, it has been responsible for more asbestos-related deaths than all other types.
Amosite (brown asbestos)
The word “amosite” is a partial acronym for asbestos mines of South Africa. Before being banned in Australia, it was a popular choice for pipe insulation, insulating boards and other thermal insulation products. It is strong, heat resistant and an excellent insulator.
Tremolite´s fibres aren´t very flexible, so this asbestos type wasn´t suitable for industrial processing or manufacturing. However, it was combined with other minerals and used in the home, garden and car products.
The structure of this fibrous asbestos type doesn´t lend itself to many commercial uses. It was not used for commercial purposes in Australia. It is still a potentially dangerous material and, like all forms of asbestos, can cause lung damage.
No asbestos fibre is safe; however, anthophyllite is said to be the least harmful. Among the rarest forms of asbestos, it wasn´t widely used in Australia, although it was present in some flooring materials.
Health Dangers of Asbestos
WHO considers that no form of asbestos is safe. Exposure to any amount has the potential to cause serious health conditions.
The four principal diseases associated with asbestos are:
This type of cancer develops in the lining that covers some of the body´s organs. It mainly affects the lining of the lungs but can also affect the heart, abdomen and testes. The principal cause is asbestos fibres getting stuck in the linings of organs. The cancer is aggressive and incurable.
Treatment is typically focused on controlling symptoms and prolonging life and can include chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery. Common symptoms include weakness and fatigue, unexplained weight loss, painful coughing and shortness of breath.
Asbestos-related lung cancer
Asbestos lung cancer is caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibres. They get lodged in lung tissue and over time cause genetic and cell damage that can turn cancerous. The illness may take 15 to 35 years to develop. Symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing up blood and chest pain. Treatment can include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and immunotherapy.
This serious lung condition is caused by long-term exposure to asbestos. Inhaling the tiny fibres over several years can cause scarring of the lungs. Symptoms include wheezing, a persistent cough, shortness of breath, fatigue and pain in the chest. Unfortunately, there is no cure for asbestos because lung damage cannot be reversed. Treatments such as oxygen therapy, an inhaler and pulmonary rehabilitation can help alleviate symptoms.
Non-malignant pleural disease (diffuse pleural thickening and pleural plaques)
Diffuse pleural thickening is where scarring caused by long-term exposure to asbestos thickens the pleural membrane lining the lungs. Pleural thickening symptoms vary from person to person but can include breathlessness and chest pain (typically after some form of physical exertion).
Pleural thickening can take around 20 years to develop, and the prognosis is good for most people as the condition doesn’t worsen with time.
Pleural plaques are noncancerous areas of thickened tissues in the lining of the lungs. They tend to appear between 20 and 30 years after asbestos exposure.
These benign lumps don’t usually cause symptoms or health problems. However, some people experience an uncomfortable grating sensation when they breathe.
Handling Asbestos: Victoria Government
Australia banned all forms of asbestos and asbestos products in 2003. However, there is still a risk of asbestos exposure in buildings containing the hazardous material. Consequently, there are strict rules governing how it should be managed and removed.
In Victoria, the Victoria State Government has published advice and guidance covering the workplace, homes and the environment.
In The Workplace
Employers have to check their property lease or rental agreements to discover the state of asbestos in the building and their responsibilities regarding how it´s managed.
Employers who own their premises have specific legal responsibilities related to asbestos. This is true even when they engage a property manager. There are also additional duties regarding asbestos management. They include a commitment to consult under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 regarding managing and removing asbestos-containing products from the workplace.
If asbestos removal is needed, licenced asbestos specialists must be engaged. In some circumstances, you may be able to remove the material yourself.
In The Home
It is not always possible to know whether asbestos is in a building. The only way to be sure is to have the material tested in an accredited laboratory. Consult the website of the National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA) to find a lab near where you live.
If asbestos is detected in your home, engage a licenced asbestos removalist. You may be able to remove a small amount of asbestos yourself. If so, follow advice on the Victoria Government´s Homeowner Removal page.
If you are concerned that asbestos may have been dumped in your area on unlicenced premises, you can report it to the Environmental Protection Agency´s 24-hour pollution hotline on 1300 EPA VIC (1300 372 842).
Asbestos Licencing in Victoria
WorkSafe is the licencing authority for asbestos removal licences in Victoria.
There are two types of licences for removal:
- Class A: Asbestos removal licence – can remove all forms of asbestos
- Class B: Asbestos removal licence – non-friable asbestos
WorkSafe may also issue licences that restrict holders to removing specific types of asbestos.
Licence holders should inform WorkSafe before carrying out asbestos removal work.
Thanks to the 2003 ban, asbestos is no longer in use in Australia. However, it is still a threat. The health risks cannot be ignored. If you discover asbestos in your home or business, there are now strict rules governing how it should be managed and removed.
If you would like to know more about asbestos in Australia please get in touch with us.