The History of Asbestos in Australia

history of asbestos in Australia - cover image

The history of asbestos can be dated back to prehistoric times. While the lineage is long, the popularity of asbestos exploded in Australia during the 20th century when it became a popular, cost-effective choice for builders.

Since then, the devastating material has been linked to thousands of deaths across the country. But where did it start and how have the regulations evolved? Take a look at Australia’s long and complicated history with asbestos.

Asbestos was first introduced into Australia back in the early 1900s. However, studies suggest that asbestos had been a regular in manufacturing materials in the 1800s within other parts of the world. By the 1930s, unprocessed asbestos was regularly being imported into Australia to suffice a large construction and industrial material demand.

Asbestos was a favourable material for the post-war construction boom, as it was durable, heat resistant, fireproof, cheap, and easily accessible. The nature of asbestos fibres meant it could be easily woven into other materials to strengthen them.  

Following the unveiling of new technologies using steam, kerosene, and electricity, there was an abundance of catastrophic fire hazards that the construction industry was woefully underprepared for. Asbestos was seen as the miracle material when first introduced due to its strength, low thermal conductivity and ability to fireproof buildings and other materials.

The History of Asbestos in Australia – Where Was it Used?

Asbestos was also used in Australia for insulation of machines, tapes, cloths, gaskets and seals, and brake linings for cars. For the most part, asbestos was used and mixed with cement for building construction, for a solid 50-year period – right up until the 1980s. The most commonly used asbestos was chrysotile (white asbestos), followed by crocidolite (blue asbestos) and amosite (brown asbestos).

Houses being built in the 1940s-1960s in Australia were predominantly constructed with tile or asbestos-cement sheet roofing. Asbestos when mixed with cement is easy to mould and malleable, making it ideal for corrugated roofing. It was a popular roofing choice in the form of asbestos cement sheets or planks as it was durable, easy to install and somewhat fireproofed.

asbestos in the home

During the 1950s, asbestos materials were a popular addition to the interiors of a home in the form of spray coatings, for textured decorative coatings on ceilings on walls. Vinyl sheet coverings or “lino” flooring were also quite popular and were made with chrysotile paper backing. Other common asbestos-containing building products during this period were vinyl-asbestos flooring tiles, roofing membranes and spray-on fire protection.

Asbestos in Australia in Comparison

Compared to other industrialised countries around the world, asbestos consumption in Australia remained slightly higher than others until the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. During this period, consumption grew and continue to exceed those of other countries, eventually being known for the highest consumption of asbestos in the world, per capita.

The History of Asbestos Mining in Australia

Asbestos has also left a significant mark on Australia because of the long history with asbestos mining. The presence of asbestos was first discovered in the 1930s in Wittenoom, Western Australia, where eventually an entire town was set up to accommodate for the growing crocidolite mining community. During the 1950s and 1960s, Wittenoom was the largest supplier of crocidolite and Australia played a huge role in exporting and importing of asbestos, worldwide. However, the growing health concerns and eventual lack of profit were enough to have the dangerous site shut down in 1966. Other asbestos mines including Baryulgiul and Woodsreef were finally shut down in the 1970s and early 1980s.

the history of asbestos mining in Australia

Asbestos mine and mill workers at Wittenoom in Western Australia and at Baryulgil and later Woodsreef in New South Wales experienced continuous, heavy exposure to toxic asbestos fibres. This group of workers experienced the first wave of asbestos-related disease, including asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma.

The History of Asbestos Health Regulations in Australia

In 2020, the risks associated with handling asbestos materials are well documented. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that asbestos in Australia was taken seriously as a health concern. According to WorkSafe Australia, asbestos is the single biggest cause of work-related deaths. Asbestos-related illnesses contribute to over 4,000 Australian lives are lost every year.

The introduction of power tools on building sites in the 1950s to 1960s in Australia saw the beginning of the asbestos dust problems. When asbestos materials are disturbed, cut, sanded, or broken, the toxic fibres of asbestos become airborne. When these particles are in the air, those inhaling the dust are at risk of being exposed to asbestos. Asbestos fibres make their way into lung cavities, become trapped, and do not break down or disintegrate.

Asbestos exposure is directly linked to many forms of cancer and disease, such as asbestosis, mesothelioma, lung cancer and pleural plaques. Often asbestos-related diseases don’t come to the surface decades after the said exposure and are untreatable.

The first regulations on asbestos were put in to place in Australia in 1978. That being said, common forms of asbestos were still being imported, used and mixed up until the 2000s. Since the nationwide ban in 2003, the use of asbestos has been strictly regulated throughout Australia.

asbestos regulations in australia

Asbestos Use in Australia Today

The problem we now face in Australia is the abundance of asbestos materials we are now left with from past construction work. Asbestos is difficult to identify and can near impossible for the average homeowner to spot asbestos without testing. However, if the house was built before 1990, it’s likely to contain the toxic material somewhere.

It’s often very difficult to know what contains asbestos and what is safe. Unless each product or material is clearly labelled, it can be impossible to tell without sampling the material and having it properly tested. There are many places in around the home that asbestos is commonly found, such as gutters, pipes, tiles, vinyl, window flashings, insulation, and fireproof seals. However, WorkSafe strongly advises against homeowners investigating any suspected asbestos materials without the help of a licensed asbestos surveyor.

Having an asbestos specialist test these materials, remove them, and dispose of them properly will be the difference between keeping you and your family safe. Sometimes non-friable asbestos will not pose a threat to a property if it’s in a good condition and undisturbed. However, it needs to be routinely inspected, maintained and registered with an asbestos management plan.

GBAR Group is pleased to deliver safe, affordable and premium-quality asbestos removal to the Sydney, Brisbane and Wollongong areas. We carry the appropriate licensing, experience and knowledge to carry out all forms of asbestos management. We’re here to remove the risk for you and your family.

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