What is asbestos and why was it used?

Asbestos is a group of six types of naturally occurring, silicate minerals which are made up of microscopic fibres. The most common type in Australia is chrysotile asbestos from the serpentine group.

Asbestos was used in many different products in Australia because of its heat, fire and water resistance, as well as being inexpensive to buy and lightweight. The vast majority of the asbestos that was imported into Australia was used in building products like asbestos-cement sheeting for
cladding and insulation in kitchens, bathrooms and laundries, as well as corrugated ‘super 6’ sheeting for roofing and fencing.

The use of asbestos in building materials was phased out by the late 1980s in all states and territories leading to a National ban on the manufacture, use, reuse, import, transport, storage and sale of all forms of asbestos which came into force on 31 December 2003. All asbestos mining ceased by 1983.

Why does Australia have such a legacy problem with asbestos?

Australia both mined asbestos in a number of locations across the country, and imported approximately 1.5 million tonnes between 1930 – 1983 – making it one of the highest per capita users of asbestos in the world. It is estimated that 13 million tonnes of asbestos-containing materials were consumed in the Australian built environment over this time. This historical use means that 1 in 3 homes built before 1990 contain asbestos, along with many industrial and commercial buildings that remain in place. Up to 6 million tonnes of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) remain in our built environment today.

What is bonded asbestos?  

There are two types of asbestos that can be found:

  • Bonded or Non-friable – the more common form of asbestos found that is mixed with cement or resin matrix to keep the fibres from being released.
  • Friable – the more risky type of asbestos that can be crushed or crumbled easily to a powder without much force

The risk of exposure to asbestos fibres from bonded materials is low –however, this does not mean there is no risk of exposure.

Non-friable or bonded asbestos can become friable if it is damaged, weathered or deteriorating, resulting in a higher risk of exposure.

How does mulch become contaminated with asbestos?  

Mulch products are produced by recycling green waste from households, parks, gardens or bushland and also from domestic or civil demolition waste and materials.

The recycling of building and demolition waste is required by law in all states and territories under
the National Waste Policy to reduce waste going into landfill as part of the circular economy.
Asbestos can end up in mulch and garden beds in different ways:

  • Householders putting asbestos materials (knowingly or by accident) into green waste bins which are then collected and mulched
  • Waste materials like timber, with asbestos materials still attached or mixed in are put through large machines and shredded into mulch
  • Residue materials in skip bins left after emptying, also known as recovered fines, are collected and added as a replacement for soil or sand.
  • If asbestos materials are not removed from the demolition waste before it is mulched, asbestos fragments or fibres can end up being mixed into the mulch material and thendistributed across a much wider area.

Why is asbestos so harmful?    

Asbestos poses a risk to health when fibres are released and inhaled and settle in the lungs. Also, the risk of developing an asbestos-related disease increases with more exposure over time. Asbestos fibres are invisible to the naked eye and are released when ageing and deteriorating asbestos materials are damaged or start to break down.  The peak period for using asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) was from the mid-1940s after the second world war to the late 1980s meaning most asbestos materials are at least 50 years old, possibly up to 100 years old. If ACMs are well maintained and remain undamaged, the risk of fibre release is low.

Asbestos-related diseases include mesothelioma, asbestosis and cancers of the lung, larynx, testis and ovary.  The latency period for most asbestos-related diseases can range from 20 to 50 years.  Over 4,000 Australian die each year from all forms of asbestos-related disease, the most common
being asbestos-related lung cancer (GBD, 2019). This is more than triple the national road toll. Approximately 700 people die each year from the most aggressive of asbestos-related disease, mesothelioma which is exclusively caused by exposure to asbestos and has no cure. The prognosis for those diagnosed with mesothelioma is between 12-18 months from diagnosis to death.

Where is asbestos found?   

Across Australia, asbestos is in 1 in 3 homes and may older industrial and commercial buildings.
If a house was built or renovated before 1990, it is likely to contain asbestos in the following

  • Cement sheeting as cladding for walls (internal and external) also known as fibro
  • Insulation products under/behind tiling in kitchens, bathrooms and laundries and other wet areas, drainage or flue pipes and electrical power boards and linoleum flooring
  • Corrugated roofing (AKA super six), guttering, down pipes and flexible building boards.

Asbestos was also used widely in friction parts for motor vehicles like clutches, brakes and gaskets.

If I am renovating a house or doing home repairs, what do I need to know?    

If the house was built or renovated before 1990, it is likely to contain asbestos somewhere. ADDRI recommends you engage a licenced asbestos assessor/removalist to conduct a survey of your property which will include sample testing for asbestos before you start renovating works.   If you suspect the house contains asbestos, treat it as there is asbestos present until it has been tested and confirmed either way.

If suspected asbestos materials are already damaged or are deteriorating, you can seal to materials with paint or glue to prevent possible fibre release. This can be done by mixing PVA glue with water (1 part glue to 9 parts water) and spraying over the affected area.

What should I do if I think I’ve been exposed to asbestos?  

Unfortunately, there are no tests that will confirm exposure to asbestos – it is recommended you book an appointment with your GP to record the asbestos exposure on your medical records and request advice on any health assessments that they consider appropriate.

You also can register your exposure/potential exposure with the Australian Government National Asbestos Exposure Register (NAER).

The NAER is a voluntary, privacy-protected register for anyone who believes they may have been exposed to asbestos – whether at work, in the home or in the community. This data is stored securely and can be accessed by the  individual in the future if they need to recall the exposure event.
The latency period between exposure and the minor potential of being diagnosed with a disease can be anywhere between 20-50 years so it is important you record what has happened now in case this information is needed much later in life.

Who do I contact about safely removing and disposing of asbestos?   

We strongly recommend that you engage a licensed asbestos removalist to conduct the removal work safely and so the asbestos waste is disposed of safely and in compliance with the State and Territory laws in place to protect the community.

You can find more information about licensed asbestos assessors and removalists for your state or territory from the websites below:

Are there regulations in place to protect against asbestos exposure?

The main areas of law to protect people from asbestos exposure are:

  • Work health and safety laws have specific requirements to prevent asbestos exposure in all workplaces.
  • Under environment protection laws everyone has a duty not to pollute the environment or to unlawfully dispose of asbestos waste.
  • Everyone also has a duty under common law and public health laws to take reasonable care not to cause harm to another person. This includes preventing the release of airborne asbestos fibres.
  • Real estate and consumer protection laws have requirements relating to the disclosure of asbestos in a property to prospective buyers. Requirements differ in each state or territory so advice should be sought from your Real Estate Agent or Conveyancer.


What is silicosis?

Silicosis is a lung disease caused by inhaling silica dust, usually over a period of many years. People who work with certain materials may inhale a very fine dust that contains silica. Once inside the lungs, the dust particles can scar, this scarring is known as silicosis.

Who is at risk?

If you’re employed in any of these fields, you may be exposed to silica dust, and therefore at risk of silicosis:

  • Mining and quarrying
  • Road construction and tunnelling
  • Cutting brick, concrete, or stone
  • Fabrication and installation of engineered stone countertops

How is silicosis diagnosed?

This involves several steps performed by the clinical team, which may include:

  • Patient medical history to discuss your symptoms and occupational work history.
  • A physical examination by performing an assessment for signs of respiratory distress and other silicosis-related symptoms.
  • Chest X-Ray and CT scan provide detailed images of the lungs that help assess the extent of lung damage and determine if silica is a possible cause.
  • Lung function tests which evaluate how well your lungs are working and assess the severity of any damage caused by silicosis.
  • Bronchoscopy is occasionally used to examine the airways internally and gather lung tissue samples.
  • Tuberculosis Test (TB), since silicosis increases the risk of tuberculosis.

How will silicosis impact me?

Silicosis can have various impacts on your health and well-being, and it is essential to seek help and support with healthcare providers to manage symptoms. Silicosis associated symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, and chest pain. As the disease progresses the lung function may decline, making it increasingly difficult to breathe and perform daily activities such as work, gardening or getting dressed. Silicosis can cause fatigue and weakness due to decreased oxygen exchange in the lungs, leading to reduced energy levels and stamina. Individuals with silicosis are at a higher risk of developing respiratory infections, such as pneumonia and TB, which can further compromise lung function and overall health. In severe cases of silicosis, it can lead to complications such as respiratory failure, kidney disease, autoimmune disorders, and other adverse health effects, including an increased risk of activating latent TB, fungal infections, eye irritation and eye damage which may significantly impact quality of life and longevity. Living with a chronic lung disease like silicosis can also take a toll emotionally, leading to anxiety, depression, and stress as individuals cope with the challenges of managing their condition. It is important that you seek support to manage occupational and lifestyle changes to prevent exposure to silica dust. There are strategies that you can do to reduce complications and improve quality of life, these could include:

  • Avoid further exposure to silica dust
  • Stay active, exercise and eat well
  • Stop smoking and vaping
  • Keep up to date with vaccinations
  • Seek mental health support

What treatment is available?

Treatments are not specific and will depend upon the presenting symptoms. These could include:

  • Medications oral and inhaled
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Lung lavage
  • Lung transplant

Who can help?

The ADDRI silicosis support service is available for support and advice.

Silicosis support
Telephone: 02 9767 9811

Have you been impacted?

ADDRI can support you, your friends or family members if you have found out that you have been impacted by asbestos and dust related diseases.

Read more

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