What do we know about asbestos?

It is estimated that 4,000 Australians die each year from asbestos-related diseases. (1) That is more than three times the national road toll (2) and four times the number of deaths in Australia during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unfortunately, asbestos is still considered to be an issue of the past. However, Australians continue to be exposed to harmful asbestos fibres, (which are 50-200 times thinner than human hair), principally through home renovations where the inhalation of only one fibre could lead to mesothelioma – the terminal cancer caused by asbestos exposure.

It is estimated that one in three houses in Australia contain asbestos, and if the house was built before 1990, it is highly likely that it will have some asbestos containing materials.  The renovation boom experienced in Australia has highlighted the risks faced not only by workers in the building industry, but by the Do It Yourself (DIY) renovators – where identifying asbestos is near impossible without professional testing.

In early 2024, asbestos has been found in soil or sand substitute and garden mulch containing contaminated building waste throughout Sydney parks, landscaping sites, schools, hospitals and other public spaces – highlighting that it is still a clear and present danger.

What do we know about the 2024 asbestos exposure in Sydney?

Asbestos in Australia

4,449 deaths per year estimated deaths per year from occupational asbestos-related diseases.

870 Mesothelioma deaths in 2020 – expected to rise to 1,500 deaths from mesothelioma in 2040.2

Banned asbestos in 2003 National ban on all types of asbestos came into force 31 December 2003.

1 in 3 homes in Australia
Contain asbestos – homes built and/or renovated before 1990 are likely to contain asbestos.

6.4 million tonnes of asbestos containing materials remain in the built environment as of 2021.
54% of which is AC water pipes and 26% being in residential buildings.

1.1 million tonnes asbestos waste
generated in 2021-22 – 22% less than the previous year.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is the name given to six naturally occurring minerals made up of tiny, needle-like fibres that are resistant to heat, electricity and corrosion. For these reasons, it was lauded as the ‘magic mineral’ and widely used in building materials in the past 100 years. Australia was the highest per-capita user of asbestos for decades – and particularly between the 1940s and 1980s. While asbestos was banned in 2003 – 20 years ago – we have a huge legacy issue of deteriorating asbestos materials in our built environment.

Historically, asbestos has been used for more than 4,500 years by humans for their flexibility, strength and insulation qualities. The Romans used asbestos for its flame-retardant and insulation properties by weaving asbestos fibers into fabrics and the Ancient Egyptians also used asbestos to improve durability in their clothes.

During the reign of Peter the Great, in the 1700s, asbestos was discovered in the Ural Mountains, Russia, and the first factory for manufacturing asbestos products began. Asbestos originated on a commercial scale in Italy at the beginning of the 19th Century. In Canada mining of white asbestos (chrysotile) started in 1878. Blue asbestos (crocidolite) was discovered in South Africa in 1815 and the first crocidolite mines opened near Prieska in 1893. The name ‘crocidolite’ means a stone with a woolly appearance. Amosite (brown asbestos) was discovered in Transvaal, South Africa, and the name was derived from the initials of the Asbestos Mines of South Africa.

The asbestos minerals belong to two distinct mineralogical groups:

  • Serpentine including: chrysotile (white asbestos), and
  • Amphibole including: amosite (brown asbestos) and crocidolite (blue asbestos), as well as a number of less known types such as tremolite, actinolite and anthophyllite.

The distinction between these two groups is important when it comes to asbestos-related diseases. Asbestos fibres are up to 200 times thinner than a human hair. The amphibole fibres are thin and straight and the serpentine are curved fibres.

Naturally Occurring Asbestos

Naturally Occurring Asbestos (NOA) is found in some rocks, sediments, and in soils and is not easy to identify. A sample collected by a competent person can be tested by a National Association of Testing (NATA) accredited laboratory to confirm the presence of asbestos in its natural form. Less than one percent of land in NSW is believed to contain NOA within 10 metres of the grounds surface. In rural and regional NSW where NOA is known, or suspected, property owners, managers, workers, and the general public who may disturb the ground surface will need to take appropriate precautions to ensure NOA is identified and managed safely in accordance with regulations.

Sign up to our newsletter

Sign up
Skip to content