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This November is the second annual National Asbestos Awareness Month, leading up to National Asbestos Awareness day on November 28. But what is asbestos and why should homeowners and tradespeople take notice?

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring set of mineral fibres coming in three main varieties: white asbestos, brown/grey asbestos, and blue asbestos. Prized for centuries for its collection of useful properties including flexibility, strength, insulation from heat and electricity, chemical non-reactiveness and its low cost, it has had thousands of applications including strengthening concrete and plastics, insulation, fireproofing and sound-proofing.

It was also employed intensively industrially, with the shipbuilding sector using it to insulate boilers, steam and hot water pipes while the car industry used it in brake shoes and clutch pads.

Australia was one of the world’s most prolific users of asbestos until the 1980s; Australian industry mined asbestos until 1984, and approximately 1.5 million tonnes of it were also imported between 1930 and 1983 according to the Australian Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency.

It was used extensively in housing construction, with the Australian Government’s Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency saying: “If your house was built before the mid-1980s, it is highly likely that it would have some asbestos containing materials.”

The health risks of asbestos were first discovered in 1899 and the first case of asbestosis was discovered in 1924 with the death of 33-year-old asbestos factory worker Nellie Kershaw.

Asbestos was eventually classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a group-one carcinogen, meaning it is a known cause of cancer in humans. It is a category shared with burning coal fumes, several forms of radiation, tobacco smoke and some industrial production fumes.

Asbestos’ tiny fibres can become airborne and when breathed in become lodged in the lungs where they cause the lining of the lungs to become inflamed and scarred, causing asbestosis (which is incurable) and increasing the risk of mesothelioma (also incurable) and lung cancer. However, there is a lag between ingesting the fibres and developing the related diseases that can last decades – it is for this reason that children are believed to be at greater risk.

Asbestos comes in two forms, bonded and friable. Bonded asbestos is asbestos mixed into other materials such as concrete which cannot be crumbled or crushed with hand pressure. Renovations that involve actions like crushing or drilling can release asbestos fibres and create a risk of them being breathed in, but if the asbestos-containing material is in good condition, the Asbestos Awareness Month website advises that they are best left undisturbed as they do not pose a significant health risk. Simply paint over them to help ensure the fibres are sealed within.

Friable asbestos refers to materials containing asbestos that can be crumbled or crushed. Generally this form of asbestos was used in industrial applications such as pipe lagging and asbestos rope or cloth. However, bonded asbestos can become friable when it the material it is bonded to becomes broken, such as when asbestos-containing concrete has holes drilled in it. Friable asbestos may only be removed by a trained and licenced specialist with a friable asbestos licence.

Warning signs of asbestos-related diseases include:

  • shortness of breath, wheezing and hoarseness
  • coughing up bloody fluid
  • persistent painful coughing which worsens with time
  • chest pain and tightness
  • difficulty swallowing
  • swelling around the face and neck
  • lack of appetite
  • losing weight
  • excessive tiredness
  • anaemia

Asbestos Awareness month

Many Australian cities are getting on-board with this year’s Asbestos Awareness Month, urging homeowners and tradesmen to educate themselves about the risks of during home renovations and demolitions when they accidentally expose themselves or others to asbestos fibres.

The Asbestos Awareness Month is supported by the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute, and will be overseen by WorkCover, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, and wall and floor construction specialists James Hardie.

This will be the second year the awareness month has run after its launch in 2013. In 2011, the Asbestos Education Committee ran an education campaign in New South Wales in cooperation with the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute, and following its success the two organisations went on to run a national campaign, Asbestos Awareness Week in 2012.

When removing things like asbestos concrete roofing, the website advises relying on licenced removalists, as there is a history of people dying or suffering serious injury after falling through asbestos cement roofs when they underestimated how brittle the material was.

What to be aware of

Home maintenance can be particularly risky. Asbestos fibres are particularly dangerous when they are disturbed, such as during home renovations. Once airborne they can be breathed in, or settle on other surfaces and become ingested and while greater quantities of fibres are more dangerous than smaller quantities, there is no safe level of exposure.

Asbestos products were often used in wet areas of homes, such as bathrooms, kitchens and laundries, however it is not possible to tell whether a material contains asbestos using sight alone.

People intending to do home maintenance or renovations should be aware of the risks and take action to protect themselves. Measures like an asbestos assessment can identify potential risks and are the first step to removing it safely.

“Removing asbestos is a dangerous and complicated process best carried out by professionals who are licenced having completed the required training,” the Asbestos Awareness Month website says.

“If you suspect you have asbestos in your home, don’t cut it! don’t drill it! don’t drop it! don’t sand it! don’t saw it! don’t scrape it! don’t scrub it! don’t dismantle it! don’t tip it! don’t waterblast it! don’t demolish it! And whatever you do… don’t dump it!” the website says.

Asbestos contaminated materials require special care when being disposed of, as they cannot simply be dumped or buried and each state has its own set of regulations about how they should be handled. Any decision to remove asbestos-tainted material must take these legal issues into account.

For more information contact the AlertForce team

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