Asbestos: All You Need to Know…

What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos is the common name for six fibrous silicate minerals. That trait of being fibrous is a primary factor why asbestos became such a building industry staple; the mineral even lends itself to being spun into fine threads and woven into cloth. In addition, asbestos:

  • Possesses high tensile strengths.
  • Is flexible.
  • Resists heat and fire.
  • Insulates against temperatures.
  • Resists reactive chemicals.

That trait of being fibrous is also what makes asbestos so dangerous. As it deteriorates, it may release flakes or small fibres that often appear white.

The Properties of Asbestos

Six different minerals served as the basis for asbestos. Chrysotile is the only one from the silicate serpentine group; the other five are from the silicate amphiboles group:

  • Chrysotile – White Asbestos. This is the most commonly used and most frequently found type of asbestos. The fibres are fine, curved sheets of crystal.
  • Amosite – Brown Asbestos. Amosite is also known as grunerite, which forms as columns, fibres or clusters of crystals.
  • Crocidolite – Wooly Stone or Blue Asbestos. Crocidolite has extremely fine, hair-like threads that are thin and flexible yet brittle.
  • Tremolite. Tremolite, too, is fibrous but usually is part of natural talc and vermiculite deposits.
  • Anthophyllite. With little commercial use, anthophyllite, like tremolite, often is associated with vermiculite and talc deposits.
  • Actinolite. Typically darker in colour, actinolite can be “dense and compact” or “brittle and fibrous.”

Unfortunately, the only way to confirm the type of asbestos in a material is to examine it under an electron microscope. Asbestos crystals and fibres are not visible to the naked eye however experts often can spot the telltale flakes and fibres indicating the presence of asbestos.

Why is Asbestos so abundant in Australia

“From the 1950s through the 1980s, Australia had the highest per capita use of asbestos in the world,” according to With one crocidolite and two chrysotile mines in the country, some Australian companies founded an asbestos-based manufacturing industry, inundating homes, businesses and even automobiles and machinery with asbestos-containing products:

Where Were the Asbestos Mines?


Located in Western Australia and rich in crocidolite – blue, or wooly stone asbestos, Wittenoom shipped “more than 150,000 tonnes (165,000 tons) of asbestos from 1943 to 1966.

Woodsreef Mine

In New South Wales, Woodsreef produced chrysotile, with open-cut mining prevalent from 1919 to 1923 and large-scale mining from 1970 to 1983 producing approximately 500,000 tonnes of the mineral.

Baryulgil Mine

Baryulgil was also a chrysotile mine in New South Wales.

To put figures in perspective, in “Asbestos: Risk Assessment, Epidemiology, and Health Effects, Second Edition,” editors Dodson and Hammar included some telling figures for Australia’s long history with asbestos. With 740,000 tonnes produced and another 1.6 million imported – even with exports of 450,000 tonnes – Australia consumed nearly 2 million tonnes – 1,888,000 – of asbestos in the country.

Physical Effects of Asbestos on People

The greatest danger of asbestos stems from the ageing and deterioration of materials containing it. Asbestos crystalline fibres are so brittle and so fine that they easily shatter, scatter and become airborne dust.

When inhaled, the needle-like fibres lodge in the lungs causing serious long-term pulmonary diseases, chronic conditions and malignant cancers including:

  • Mesothelioma.
    • Strongly associated with exposure to crocidolite, or blue asbestos, mesothelioma is a malignant cancer. It begins on the pleural membranes covering the lungs and spreads both to the lung and throughout the chest wall. It often develops three to four decades after exposure but currently has no cure.
  • Lung Cancer.
    • Exposure to airborne asbestos dust and fibres increases risks for lung cancers, especially if individuals also smoke. The first symptom is often a persistent cough that may appear 10 to 20 years after exposure. Unrecognised and untreated, tumours will metastasize throughout the lung or other parts of the body.
  • Asbestosis.
    • After years of inhaling asbestos dust particles and fibres, the lungs become scarred and lose flexibility. As the lungs take on an increasingly honeycombed appearance, breathing becomes strained, with breathlessness or laboured breaths, chest tightness and persistent coughing. As the chronic disease progresses, an individual’s skin tone may even appear bluish due to lack of oxygen.
  • Pleural Plaques and Thickening.
    • When exposed to airborne asbestos fibres, the pleural membranes covering the lungs can develop pleural plaques – patches of scarred membrane that thicken and turn rigid. Sometimes, the pleural thickening is widespread and is termed fibrosis. Inflammation usually accompanies this condition, often causing effusions or collections of fluid in the chest cavity.

The medical community has expressed especially deep concern over small children’s susceptibility to these conditions, all resulting from simply inhaling asbestos fibres.

Why is Asbestos so Prevalent in the Community?

As a mineral, Asbestos is one of the most versatile, useful and utilitarian materials in the world. Unfortunately, it’s also extremely harmful to humans, is a silent killer and is present in homes and businesses from rooftops to basements.

Worst of all, even when homeowners know that building materials in their home or business contain asbestos, attempting to remove it without proper precautions can become a dangerous exercise yielding deadly results years later.

Health and environmental officials repeatedly state, “There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos fibres.”

The Law and Asbestos

The Australian Government’s Work Health and Safety Regulations of 2011 reinforce the dangerous nature of asbestos, addressing it for both commercial and domestic settings in Chapter 8:

  • “A person conducting a business or undertaking must not carry out, or direct or allow a worker to carry out, work involving asbestos.”
  • “Work involves asbestos if the work involves manufacturing, supplying, transporting, storing, removing, using, installing, handling, treating, disposing of or disturbing asbestos or ACM.” ACM is asbestos-containing material.”
  • “Penalties for violating the regulations are $6,000 for individuals and $30,000 for corporate bodies for each physical element of each offence under the Act.”

Asbestos is so deadly that it must be removed completely prior to a building’s or home’s demolition or refurbishment. Australian law permits only trained, licensed asbestos removalists to perform any work involving asbestos-containing materials.

Commercial Risks Are Domestic Risks

The key to understanding the physical effects of asbestos on the human body lie in the duration and level of exposure. Individuals who worked in certain industries had a much higher levels and durations of exposure and therefore, higher incidences of disease. Those most at risk industries were:

  • Mining
  • Manufacturing
  • Shipbuilding
  • Railway carriage construction and maintenance
  • Office and industrial construction
  • Power industries

Because asbestos materials were used in so many ways and for so many decades, public health authorities caution even workers in domestic building and home construction, remodelling and maintenance to be aware of risks. Plumbers, carpenters, electricians and other tradespeople may unknowingly expose themselves and others to asbestos through power tools that inevitably release dust or sawdust into the air and ventilation systems.

Identifying Asbestos

Permanent and deadly. In “Asbestos: a Guide for Householders and the General Public,” Professor Chris Baggoley, Australian Government Chief Medical Officer, states, “There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos fibres.” In addition, if asbestos is present, it doesn’t go away; it won’t evaporate or decompose into less harmful components. It will, however, over time, break down and – if disturbed in any way – release dust particles laden with fibres into the air.

Friable and Bonded Products

Asbestos was not totally banned in Australia until December of 2003, and any materials used in homes built or remodelled prior to 1990 are likely to contain it simply because it was considered so useful and lent itself to being included in so many products. Some materials are considered friable whilst others contain bonded asbestos:

  • Friable products may be made entirely or mostly of “unsecured” asbestos fibres or contain only a small percentage. Friable means that the material can be “crumbled, pulverised or reduced to powder by the pressure of an ordinary human hand.”
  • Bonded products contain asbestos, but it’s usually encapsulated or “bound” into the product.

However, as homes age and householders face everyday wear, weathering and maintenance issues, asbestos becomes an ever-growing danger. If a material is cracking, disintegrating or breaking down, it may also be releasing dust laden with asbestos fibres.

Products and Materials That May Contain Asbestos

Many householders have difficulty fathoming all the ways asbestos might be present in their homes. Whether bonded or friable, asbestos was used in:

  • Roofing materials
  • Cement and cement sheets
  • Ceilings
  • Drywall and insulation boards
  • Flexible building boards
  • Tiles for ceilings, floors and roofs.
    • Often asbestos-containing tiles can be identified by manufacturer. Also, if packaging is still available, it may provide further confirmation.
  • Brake insulation
  • Thermal insulation
  • Pipe and plumbing insulation
  • Electrical insulation
  • Chemical insulation
  • Acid storage battery casings
  • Spray-on insulation
  • Gaskets, lagging and boiler seals
  • Fire-resistant coverings or sleeves
  • Heat-resistant fabrics
  • Water encasements or enclosures
  • Electrical and telecommunications wires
  • Mill boards (commercial ovens) or thermal boards (fireplaces)
  • Sealants, adhesives and paints
  • Flue pipes
  • Fencing
  • Exterior wall cladding

Just as householders or inspectors may be able to identify asbestos-containing tiles through manufacturer name, the same can be done for many of the other products used as well. If the manufacturer was known to use asbestos and the product can be associated with a time frame prior to the 1990s, it very well may contain asbestos.

The Whys and Hows of an Asbestos Inspection

Why a Formal Inspection?

Because asbestos is so pervasive within homes built prior to the 1990s, householders who suspect the presence of asbestos should contact a licensed asbestos professional to inspect their home and confirm or rule out any danger. An inspection is essential if:

  • Areas are deteriorating, flaking, disintegrating or shedding powdery residue or dust.
  • A householder wishes to remodel, upgrade, demolish or destroy a portion of a house or outbuilding.

Asbestos fibres can be amazingly minuscule. Google ‘how small is asbestos’ and images will reveal that 20,000 fibres are smaller than a human hair. Any disturbance to asbestos-containing materials – even bonded ones – can release fibrous dust and particles into the air.

Even a seemingly simple upgrade like replacing windows in a home or sanding a textured surface can quickly become an exercise in hazardous asbestos waste that – if handled poorly – can place entire families at risk. Note that even when burned in fire, asbestos particles remain in ash that easily becomes airborne.

Licensed Asbestos Inspections

An inspection’s goal is to confirm or negate the presence of asbestos. Often flakes and fibres within deteriorating materials may be visible. The inspector may need to submit a sample to an accredited laboratory to confirm suspicions and identify the type of asbestos. The only way to positively identify asbestos by type is to view a sample through an electron microscope. Sampling needs to take place safely and accurately, so some general protocols apply. Householders can expect licensed assessors or removalists to:

  • Have appropriate equipment and clothing to prevent them from inhaling asbestos fibres or transferring fibrous dust to other locations.
  • For areas within a home, turn off ventilation systems or any devices that might circulate air and close windows.
  • Take photographs of suspect areas.
  • Recommend that residents leave the home or area during sampling. Householders who choose to remain for the process may need to wear protective gear and surrender that gear to the sampling contractor for proper disposal.
  • Use plastic sheeting as barriers for areas sampled.
  • Wet suspect areas to prevent fibres from becoming airborne.
  • Cut a small sample from each suspect area, placing each within a labelled container.
  • Seal the sampled area to prevent any further shedding of possible asbestos fibres.
  • Take air samples.
  • Dispose of all materials and gear properly.
  • Submit all samples to a National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA) accredited laboratory for analysis.

When Asbestos Is in Your Home

Experts recommend householders employ a licensed asbestos assessor, inspector or removalist to address asbestos issues, especially if the source is friable or shedding asbestos fibres. Moving or destroying asbestos-containing materials can prove a hazard not only to the householder but also to neighbours and visitors.

Every break, tear or cut necessary to remove the asbestos can release more fibres. Without the proper ventilation, respiratory equipment, protective clothing, evaluative tools, remediation equipment, precautions and follow-up testing, what was once “contained” asbestos can become a widespread airborne health hazard.

In some cases, householders have contaminated entire homes, blanketing their families and furnishings in asbestos dust, whilst trying to remove asbestos themselves.

Licensed removalists are trained in how to isolate areas, safely remove asbestos materials and seal areas so that no further disbursement occurs.

All asbestos waste must be sealed and disposed of properly in accordance with Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) guidance and only at EPA-approved sites.

When Asbestos Problems Overwhelm Householders

Even the government is struggling with how to rid it’s buildings of asbestos by 2030 and householders are challenged daily in deciding whether to live with or without asbestos plaguing their homes.

Nevertheless, asbestos is a serious problem confronting government, commercial businesses and householders alike.

Awareness of just how pervasive asbestos fibres can become in a domestic environment increases daily.

Before breaking out the saws, sanders, drills and compressors, you can serve yourself, your family and your community best by first taking the time to evaluate whether your home might contain asbestos.

A simple asbestos inspection can address issues, lay the worst of fears to rest and ensure your house remains a home.