Asbestos is a term for a group of six naturally occurring mineral fibres belonging to two groups:
- Serpentine Group – comprised of only chrysotile (white asbestos)
- Amphibole Group – comprised of anthophyllite, amosite (brown asbestos or grey asbestos), crocidolite (blue asbestos), tremolite, and actinolite.
Asbestos was long viewed as one of the most versatile minerals because of its flexibility, tensile strength, insulation from heat and electricity, chemical inertness and affordability.
The versatility of asbestos made it attractive to many industries and is thought to have more than 3000 applications worldwide. Australia was one of the highest users per capita in the world up until the mid-1980s. Approximately one third of all homes built in Australia contain asbestos products. The widespread use of asbestos has left a deadly legacy of asbestos material.
Asbestos, predominantly chrysotile and crocidolite, was mined in Australia until late 1984. Records also show that between 1930 and 1983, approximately 1.5 million tonnes of all forms of asbestos was imported into Australia.
Asbestos containing materials (ACMs) can be categorised as friable and non-friable. Non-friable asbestos, where it is mixed with other materials like cement, is the type most commonly found in our built environment. Friable asbestos is more likely to become airborne.
Both friable and non-friable asbestos pose a significant health risk to all workers and others if the materials are not properly maintained or removed carefully. In the built environment, potential health risks are posed where there is:
- the presence of ambient levels of asbestos
- weathering of ACMs
- the presence of damaged ACMs
- building and/or maintenance work involving ACMs and
- demolition and/or removal of ACMs.
The risk of exposure from the built environment is broad, with the potential to impact the entire Australian community.
Asbestos in the home
Approximately one third of all homes built in Australia contain asbestos products. As a general rule, if your house was built before the mid-1980s, it is highly likely that it would have some asbestos containing materials. If your house was built between the mid-1980s and 1990, it is likely that it would have asbestos containing materials. If your house was built after 1990, it is unlikely that it would have asbestos containing materials.
The use of ACMs in the home has been extensive and there are many areas in the home where ACMs can be found including (but not limited to):
- roof sheeting and capping
- gables, eaves/soffitswater pipes and flues
- wall sheeting (flat or a weatherboard style
- vinyl sheet flooring
- carpet and tile underlays
- zelemite backing boards to the switchboards
- flexible building boards
- imitation brick cladding
- carports and sheds
- waterproof membrane
- telecommunications pits
- some window putty
- expansion joints
- packing under beams
- concrete formwork
The Asbestos Awareness website contains images and resources showing what asbestos looks like as per the list above.
It is not possible to determine whether a material contains asbestos by simply looking at it. The only way to be sure is to get a sample of the material tested by a National Association of Testing Authorities accredited laboratory but if one is not readily available, there are other laboratories that provide similar testing services.
Home owners and renovators obtaining an asbestos surveyIf you are unsure whether your home contains asbestos, an asbestos survey will assist you to become informed of its location, condition and give guidance on how to manage the risk.