Asbestos

Introduction

A guide for householders and the general public

Page last updated: 06 March 2013

This guide has been prepared for householders. It describes the risks to your health from being exposed to asbestos fibres. It explains who is at risk and how to reduce exposure to yourself, your family and others. It also contains basic information on identifying and dealing with asbestos.


Asbestos is the name given to a group of naturally occurring minerals found in rock formations. Three types of asbestos were mined in Australia: white, blue and brown asbestos. Large deposits were mined in Western Australia and New South Wales, and there were smaller operations in Tasmania and South Australia. Asbestos mining was completely stopped in Australia by 1983 but it is still mined in large quantities at many locations worldwide. Mined asbestos only represented a small proportion of the asbestos used in Australia (about 5%) and the bulk was imported. The majority of asbestos (90%) used throughout the world, including Australia, was white asbestos. 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.

Asbestos fibres are strong, heat resistant and have insulating properties. Clumps of mined asbestos can be broken down into loose fibres or fibre bundles, and can be mixed with other materials, such as cement, to produce a variety of building products. Up to 90% of the asbestos produced in or imported into Australia was used for the manufacture of building products, especially asbestos cement materials.

Asbestos fibres can be found in the air from the breakdown of natural asbestos deposits and manufactured asbestos products. Once airborne, small fibres may remain suspended in the air for some time and can be carried long distances by wind before settling down. Larger fibres and particles tend to settle more quickly. 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-containing building products are classified as either ‘friable’ (soft, crumbly) or ‘bonded’ (solid, rigid, non-friable).

Asbestos fibres are not visible to the naked eye but, they are very light, remain airborne for a long time, and can be carried by wind and air currents over large distances.

Friable products

Friable asbestos products are generally quite soft and loose and can be crumbled into fine material or dust with very light pressure, such as crushing with your hand. Such products usually contain high levels of asbestos (up to 100% in some instances), which is loosely held in the product so that the asbestos fibres are easily released into the air.

Friable asbestos products are dangerous because the asbestos fibres can get into the air very easily, and may be inhaled by people living or working in the vicinity.

Bonded products

Bonded asbestos products are made from a bonding compound (such as cement) mixed with a small proportion (usually less than 15%) of asbestos. Bonded asbestos products are solid, rigid and non-friable. The asbestos fibres are tightly bound in the product and are not normally released into the air. Common names for such products are ‘fibro’, ‘asbestos cement’ and ‘AC sheeting’. In this booklet we refer to bonded asbestos products as ‘asbestos cement materials’ (or ‘asbestos cement sheeting’).

When in good condition, bonded asbestos products do not normally release any asbestos fibres into the air and are considered a very low risk for people who are in contact with them, as long as appropriate safety precautions are used when they are disturbed.

However, when bonded asbestos products are damaged or badly weathered (including hail damage), areas may become friable.

At the end of this guide, there is a list of website addresses and other contact details to help you find information about working with asbestos safely, removing and disposing of asbestos, and asbestos licensing requirements (see: Further information).