It seems like every week there is a serious new discovery of asbestos in a public space or work environment that requires asbestos removal services.
This problem is especially apparent in Australia, which is second only to the UK in the number of asbestos-related disease deaths. The fibrous mineral, which was widely used in several industries for its insulating properties, is the direct cause of a number of lung diseases, including asbestos, silicosis and malignant mesothelioma.
Unfortunately, it was used in Australia’s construction and manufacturing industries until as late as 1987. This has put generations of workers at risk, and most of the time, the symptoms of asbestos exposure do not show up until decades after the person comes in contact with the material.
Asbestos detection has become a big business in Australia, as it has become crucial for ensuring a safe workplace for employees in several sectors. With this has also come much higher asbestos awareness as offices and work sites around the country become more privy to the dangers of asbestos exposure.
This has led researchers to dig in to the different kinds of asbestos that companies have been mining for years in order to better learn which kinds pose the most threat to humans and which are relatively benign.
Here’s a quick rundown of the forms of asbestos businesses may find in their workplaces.
Serpentine vs Amphibole
Altogether, there are six different types of asbestos. However, these can be grouped into one of two main categories – serpentine asbestos or amphibole asbestos.
Serpentine asbestos includes the chrysotile variety, more commonly known as white asbestos. This is by far the most common form of the mineral anywhere in the world – including Australia – and can be found in the roofs, ceilings, walls and floors of homes and businesses. Because of its unique properties, it can also be found in brake pads in automobiles, pipe insulation, gaskets and boiler seals.
This type of asbestos is characterised by its layered structure and curly fibres.
The remaining five types of asbestos are classified as the amphibole kind. Though less common than white asbestos, these are markedly more dangerous to humans. At their molecular level, the made of elongated, chain-like structures that make them extremely sharp and easy to inhale.
The most common forms of amphibole asbestos in Australia include crocidolite – sometimes known as blue asbestos – and amosite, known widely as brown asbestos. The remaining three types are anthophyllite, tremolite and actinolite, and are equally dangerous but are not as common in Australian workplaces.
A closer look at serpentine (chrysotile) asbestos
Although it does not have as bad a reputation as its counterparts, chrysotile asbestos is still proven to cause a number of serious health issues. Often, this is because it is mined and used alongside the much more toxic tremolite asbestos. Even when only trace amounts are found along with white asbestos, it can still raise the risks tremendously.
Because of its high flexibility and great heat resistance, white asbestos was widely used around the world in the 20th century, and made up as much as 95 per cent of all commercial asbestos use in the US.
The dangers of amphiboles
The biggest concerns for any asbestos removal organisations in Australia should be the amphiboles crocidolite and amosite asbestos. This blue and brown variety, respectively, are among the deadliest forms of the mineral.
Some studies have shown that blue asbestos could be responsible for more deaths than any other form of asbestos. The fibres are extremely thin – roughly the diameter of a strand of hair – and can easily be inhaled if airborne. Once they lodge themselves into the lining of the lungs, they can remain there far longer than other foreign materials, resulting in serious health conditions including lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis.
The fibre is so deadly that it is estimated as many as 18 per cent of all crocidolite miners will die from mesothelioma. It was used mainly in Australia, and could be found in several products. However, because it was less heat-resistant than other forms of asbestos, it was not as widely used in industrial manufacturing settings.
Blue asbestos’ cousin amosite could potentially be as dangerous, as several studies have shown this form of the mineral has been associated with higher cancer risks than other types of asbestos.
This brown asbestos was mined as recently as 10 years ago, and was at one time the second-most commonly used form of the material anywhere in the world. This form originates in Africa, but was shipped worldwide and was exceptional for making cement sheet and pipe insulation.
There was such high demand for brown asbestos in the 20th century that by 1970, around 80,000 tonnes of the material had been mined from one region in South Africa. In addition to cement sheets and thermal insulation, it was used as a chemical and electrical insulator, a roofing product and in tiles used in ceilings, roofs and floors.
Unlike blue asbestos, amosite was widely used in factories and industrial manufacturing settings for its acoustical and anti-condensation properties.
The less common – but still deadly – forms of asbestos
The three remaining forms of asbestos – tremolite, anthophyllite and actinolite – were not used as much in commercial applications, but it’s worth mentioning their deadly properties.
Tremolite’s most attractive property was that it could be spun and woven into cloth, making it ideal for flexible and heat resistance materials. Most commonly, it was found in paints, sealants, roofing materials, insulation and plumbing supplies.
Although it isn’t commonly mined on its own, it can be found in large amounts in minerals like talc and vermiculite. These are common ingredients in a number of products, ranging from fertiliser to plasterboard. It has not been classified any further as it may appear in any colour, as well as clear and opaque.
This form of asbestos may be the least toxic of all, as most studies suggest it is not known to cause malignant mesothelioma or other lung cancers. However, even though it isn’t as pronounced as blue, white and brown asbestos, there is still a connection between anthophyillite and serious health problems.
It is also among the rarest forms of asbestos, and has only appeared in a few mines around the world, including in Finland and the US.
The final form of asbestos, actinolite, is most commonly found when it is paired with other minerals to enhance their heat-resistant qualities. When used with vermiculite, for example, the two create a lightweight and effective insulator.
In addition to heat resistance, it can be found in gardening products and concrete materials.
Risks exist in all forms
While there are several different kinds of asbestos with a number of different uses and histories, the simple fact is that all varieties have either been linked to or directly associated with deadly health conditions.
Asbestos removal training should include an overview of all forms of the mineral with a special focus on the most deadly and those that are most commonly found in Australia.
Going forward, it will be crucial to continue to raise asbestos awareness all over the country to limit the number of homeowners and workers who are exposed to the deadly fibre.
The National Health and Medical Research Council predicts that as many as 25,000 Australians will die from asbestos-related diseases in the next 40 years, but with the right awareness and training, this number could fall dramatically.
For more information, get in touch with the AlertForce team today!
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