Asbestos is a mineral fibre mined from the earth. It is strong, flexible and resistant to heat, chemicals and electrical conditions. The three most common forms of asbestos are white (chrysotile), brown (amosite) and blue (crocidolite).
Asbestos, predominantly the white and blue types, was mined in Australia until late 1984, although records show that between 1930 and 1983 approximately 1.5 million tonnes of all forms of asbestos was imported into Australia. Australia was one of the highest asbestos users per capita in the world up until the mid-1980s.
Asbestos fibres are strong, heat resistant and have insulating properties. Clumps of mined asbestos can be broken down in to loose fibres or fibre bundles and mixed with other materials, such as cement, to produce a variety of building products. Because of its strength and its ability to resist heat and chemicals, asbestos was used in a range of insulation materials. Up to 90 per cent of the asbestos produced in or imported into Australia was used for the manufacture of building products, especially asbestos cement materials. Approximately one third of all homes built in Australia contain asbestos products. The widespread use of asbestos has left a deadly legacy of asbestos material.
Australia banned the use or import of blue and brown asbestos or asbestos products in the mid-1980s, and banned all manufacture or import of white asbestos products in December 2003. From 31 December 2003, the total ban on manufacture, use, reuse, import, transport, storage or sale of all forms of asbestos came into force.
Asbestos fibres are not visible to the naked eye. They are very lightweight, and can be found in the air from the breakdown of natural asbestos deposits and manufactured asbestos products. Once airborne, small fibres can be carried long distances by wind before settling down. Asbestos fibres do not dissolve in water or move through soil. They are generally not broken down to other compounds and remain virtually unchanged over long periods.
Asbestos becomes a potential risk to health if fibres are suspended in air and breathed into the lungs. Breathing asbestos fibres into the lungs can cause a range of diseases, including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.
Asbestos removal must be carefully removed and disposed of so that it does not create a health risk. Individual fibres must not be released into the air where they could be inhaled.
- SafeWork Australia www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/sites/swa/whs-information/asbestos/pages/asbestos
- Asbestos in Victoria (information from Work Safe in Victoria and the Environment Protection Authority in Victoria and the Department of Health. www.asbestos.vic.gov.au
- Work Safe Queensland www.worksafe.qld.gov.au/injury-prevention-safety/asbestos/asbestos-removal-and-licensing
- Work Safe Tasmania www.worksafe.tas.gov.au/safety/safety_subjects/subject/asbestos
- Work Safe ACT www.worksafe.act.gov.au/page/view/1207#Overview