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The risk of exposure to airborne asbestos particles is a well-known hazard, particularly among Australians working in construction, mining and other high-risk industries.

However, the belief that minimal exposure means a lower risk of developing mesothelioma, an incurable lung disease caused by asbestos fibres, has been subject to scrutiny in a recent study by researchers in Amsterdam.

How much exposure causes mesothelioma?

By investigating the health outcomes of more than 58,000 Dutch construction workers, the study – “Is one single exposure to asbestos life-threatening?” – found that although the risk of lung cancer, laryngeal cancer, and mesothelioma does indeed increase through continued exposure, even low exposure can lead to an individual developing certain conditions.

In particular, some individuals were more at risk than others. For example, those who smoke cigarettes were much more likely to develop an asbestos-related disease, regardless of their level of exposure.

“The risk of development of lung cancer was higher for anyone with increased years of exposure to asbestos fibre combined with a smoking habit,” the study authors, Dr Paul Baas and Dr JA Burgers explained in the report.

Through 17 years of monitoring and surveys, the study revealed that out of the 58,000 construction workers, 132 developed mesothelioma, 2,324 reported lung cancer and 166 were diagnosed with laryngeal cancer. While mesothelioma was the rarest condition reported, it is also considered the most deadly, due to its fast progression and resistance to standard treatments.

Of the three types of asbestos-related cancer studied, only two subtypes – lung adenocarcinoma (a form of non-small cell lung cancer) and glottis cancer (a subtype of laryngeal cancer affecting the vocal chords) – revealed any correlation between high levels of exposure and increased rates of diagnosis.

For mesothelioma and other categories of lung cancer, even lower levels of asbestos exposure were enough to trigger the disease. In fact, the researchers believe that even a single moment of exposure can be enough to potentially cause mesothelioma.

“Asbestos levels encountered at the lower end of the exposure distribution may be associated with an increased risk of pleural mesothelioma, lung cancer, and laryngeal cancer,” the researchers conclude.

This report shows that while the risk of developing a lung condition does increase with the level of exposure, even a single moment of vulnerability can be hazardous, particularly to those who smoke. This result confirms the importance of ensuring all employees at risk of asbestos exposure are adequately trained in asbestos awareness and response.

“Although the risk gets higher with longer exposure, this article is a reminder that even a small amount of asbestos can be dangerous, especially if you are a smoker,” Alex Strauss, Managing Editor of Surviving Mesothelioma, explained.

“This is why the EPA recommends that homeowners never try to handle or remove asbestos themselves. The risk for mesothelioma is just too high.”

Mitigating the risk of asbestos exposure

If your business operates in an industry with any risk of asbestos exposure, including construction, decorating, landscaping or mining, it is crucial that you and your employees understand how to recognise and respond to an asbestos contamination.

Identifying asbestos can be a challenging task, as the fibres can often be bonded into building materials and other structures. Fortunately, there are some simple tips to help your staff accurately recognise their asbestos risk.

  • The age of the building and materials – Asbestos was a widely used resource in construction through to the late 1980s, with a nation-wide ban not occurring until December 2003. If the building or equipment being used was built or manufactured before this time, there is a risk that asbestos will be present.
  • The type of material – If the building you are working in contains cement sheets installed prior to 1990, it is likely to hold asbestos fibres.
  • The room’s exposure to water and damp – Asbestos is commonly found in areas that may have required waterproofing, such as bathrooms and laundries. Additionally, pipes that carry water or sewerage may also contain these deadly fibres.

If you or your employees are unsure about the presence of asbestos in the workplace, Safe Work Australia recommends that you assume asbestos is present and act accordingly.

This includes calling in a team or individual who has is trained and qualified in asbestos removal to analyse and test the potential contamination. Once asbestos has been confirmed, material must be correctly removed and disposed of.

While some forms of asbestos may present a lower risk of airborne fibres, all contamination should be treated as a potential health hazard, as even bonded fibres may become loose during certain work or weather events.

Before the asbestos can be removed, it should be signposted and avoided if possible. By restricting access to the area where asbestos is present, you can effectively reduce the risk of an employee unwittingly becoming exposed.

Once a removal plan is in place, the property owner has an obligation to inform all neighbouring building occupants of the asbestos risk. This enables them to close their windows, remain indoors and turn off any air intake devices to minimise the chances of airborne fibres finding their way inside.

Those undertaking the asbestos removal must follow all rules and regulations regarding this process, including wearing single-use personal protective equipment and correctly disposing of all clothing, materials and single-use tools along with the asbestos.

If you are interested in improving the safety of your staff by offering them asbestos awareness training, you should get in touch with the AlertForce team today.

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