FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Understanding Asbestos in a Language You Understand
There is a lot of information on the internet about asbestos. Most of it isn’t relevant to Australia, let alone to Queensland. We have taken the time to answer some of the most commonly asked questions, as well as covering some important information about asbestos and asbestos safety. Best of all it's in plain English.
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral. It contains fibres that are strong, heat resistant, water resistant and has very good insulating properties. Asbestos fibres are up to 200 times smaller that a human hair. This means they can be so small that you cannot see them with the naked eye, they stay airborne for a long time and are easily breathed into the lungs.
What types of asbestos are there?
Asbestos in Australia is commonly classed into three different types.
- Chrysotile (White asbestos)
- Amosite (Brown asbestos)
- Crocidolite (Blue asbestos)
The colours are not typically reflected in a product containing that type of that asbestos. The colour refers to how the fibres look under a microscope when they’ve been stained with an oil and looked at with UV light.
What are the differences in types?
White asbestos belongs to the serpentine group, when you look at it under a microscope it has an ‘s’ or snake shape. Due to its shape it is less likely that this type of asbestos will penetrate your lung wall.
Brown and Blue asbestos both belong to the amphibole group, when you look at them under a microscope they have a dart like shape. This makes it easier for these fibres to penetrate the lung wall. When brown asbestos fibres are damage they break across their width, which means there are more of them but they do not get any finer. Blue asbestos fibres break long their width, which means the more they are damaged the finer they become and the easier it is for the fibres to penetrate your lung wall.
Blue asbestos is considered the most dangerous, followed by brown and then white. It’s important to emphasise that just because blue is the worst, brown or even white cannot be considered safe. All asbestos is dangerous. The different types were used in certain products and often its the stability of the end product, rather than the type of asbestos in it that determines how dangerous it is.
Conventional wisdom said that asbestos related diseases can take up to 50 years to develop and show symptoms. But recent research has found that once exposed the risk of developing an asbestos related disease remains throughout your entire life. This means that the earlier in life you are exposed, the longer you have for symptoms to develop. There maybe some treatments that prolong the life of sufferers of asbestos related disease, but there are no known cures.
What is the difference between bonded and friable asbestos?
The terms bonded and friable refer to the structural stability of a product. As a rule of thumb if an asbestos material can be crumbled in the hand it is considered friable. Products that cannot be damaged in this way are classed as bonded.
Bonded asbestos is bound into a tight bonding matrix.
What health risks does asbestos pose?
Asbestos can have negative health outcomes if fibres are breathed into the lungs. Your natural defences do provide some protection (nose hair, coughing up and swallowing etc), but due to how small asbestos fibres are, some asbestos can remain in your lungs.
Asbestosis is one of the most condition people ask about. This is where asbestos fibres that are stuck in the lung cause scarring. It does progressively get worst, but mainly reduces quality of life due to struggling to breathe rather than being fatal.
Mesothelioma is the other condition that is commonly talked about in the media. This is a cancer of lining around the lungs and abdomen, and is caused by fibres penetrating the lung wall and damaging the cells there which become cancerous over time. Average time from diagnosis till death from Mesothelioma is 5-6 months. Other health effects include lung cancer and benign pleural diseases, which are non-cancerous diseases that affect the linings around the linings of the lung and abdomen.
Bonded asbestos is bound into a tight bonding matrix.
When did they stop using asbestos?
In Queensland asbestos building materials were banned in 1990 and all forms of asbestos have been banned nationally since 31 December 2003. This does not guarantee that homes and buildings built post 1990 are asbestos free. In our experience we have encountered a home built as late as 1996 that had products which were tested and found to contain asbestos. It is always safer to have a sample analysed by a NATA approved laboratory rather than assume that a product is asbestos free.
Where was asbestos used?
Asbestos was commonly used in a variety of building materials throughout Australia. The 1940s till the late 1980s was it’s hey day, and most buildings constructed during this time contain asbestos somewhere.
In Queensland the most common domestic uses were for roof linings, internal wall and ceiling linings, vinyl floor sheeting and tiles, external cladding, fences, sheds linings, and compressed deck sheeting. Depending on the age of the house the entire building can be made of asbestos materials except for the timber frame, the floors and foundations.
During the 60s and 70s the VJ timber wall linings that are so popular today were considered unfashionable, so often in Queenslanders the VJ walls and ceilings where covered with asbestos sheeting.
In the commercial and industrial environment asbestos was very popular for it’s heat resistance and insulating properties. Entire industrial sheds were often lined in corrugated asbestos sheeting, and in commercial buildings it’s very common to find internal wall and ceiling linings, as well as vinyl floor coverings that contain asbestos.
In these environment there are simple too many asbestos products to list in detail here. All commercial buildings built prior to 1990 should have an ‘Asbestos Register’ that clearly identifies any asbestos material on the property and the condition it’s in. Please refer to your site’s asbestos register for a detailed report.