Understanding the Impact of Improper Asbestos Management on Environmental and Human Health

August 10, 2023

Sebastian Tiller

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was widely used in construction materials due to its heat resistance and durability. Proper asbestos management is crucial to prevent severe harm to both people and the environment. Mishandling asbestos releases hazardous fibres that, when inhaled, lead to fatal health conditions like lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Additionally, improper handling can contaminate soil, water, and wildlife habitats, causing irreversible damage to ecosystems. Adhering to regulations and safe removal practices is not just a legal obligation but a moral responsibility to protect present and future generations.

In this article, we will cover these harmful effects in more detail, as well as the steps you can take to avoid them and highlighting the importance of proper asbestos management.

Common materials that may contain asbestos

Here's a brief overview of common materials that may contain asbestos:

  • Floor tile: Asbestos was once incorporated into vinyl floor tiles to improve their strength and resilience, and if these tiles are broken or removed improperly, they can release asbestos fibres into the air.
  • Boiler insulation: Asbestos insulation was commonly used to cover boilers due to its fire-resistant properties, and when the insulation starts to deteriorate, asbestos fibres can become airborne, posing health risks.
  • Ceiling tiles: Asbestos-containing ceiling tiles were widely used in buildings for acoustic and thermal insulation, and proper handling and removal are essential to avoid fibre release.
  • Fireproofing: Asbestos was used in fireproofing materials, such as spray-applied coatings or plasters, to protect steel beams and other structural components in buildings, and disturbance of these materials can lead to asbestos exposure.
  • Linoleum: Some older linoleum flooring products may contain asbestos fibres as a reinforcement material, and it is important to have a professional assess its condition before any renovation work.
  • Tank insulation: Asbestos insulation was used to insulate tanks, pipes, and other industrial equipment, and any disturbance to these materials should be done by trained specialists following safety protocols.
  • Adhesives: Asbestos was added to certain adhesives, like floor tile mastic and roofing adhesives, to enhance their strength and bonding properties, and using asbestos-free alternatives is now strongly recommended.
  • Acoustical finishes: Asbestos was used in acoustical materials like ceiling tiles and panels to improve sound absorption, and intact asbestos-containing finishes should be managed carefully to prevent fibre release.
  • Gaskets: Asbestos gaskets were widely used in various applications, including engines, pumps, and industrial machinery, and proper handling and disposal are necessary to prevent exposure.
  • Fume hood liners: Asbestos-containing materials were used in laboratory fume hoods and exhaust systems for their fire-resistant properties, and laboratories should have these materials assessed and, if necessary, replaced with safer alternatives.
  • Plaster: Asbestos was incorporated into some types of plaster for walls and ceilings, particularly in older buildings, and any renovation work involving asbestos-containing plaster must be conducted by professionals following safety guidelines.
  • Pipe insulation: Asbestos insulation was commonly applied around pipes to provide thermal protection, and damaged or deteriorating insulation should be carefully removed to prevent asbestos fibre release.
  • HVAC duct wrap: Asbestos-containing materials were used to insulate heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) ductwork, and proper maintenance and monitoring are crucial to prevent potential exposure.
  • Lab countertops: Some laboratory countertops were made with asbestos materials, particularly in older labs, and it is essential to verify and replace asbestos-containing countertops in laboratories for safety.
  • Roofing: Asbestos was used in roofing materials, such as shingles and corrugated sheets, for its fire resistance and durability, and any repair or removal of asbestos-containing roofing should be performed by professionals.
  • Pipe fittings: Asbestos-containing materials were used in pipe fittings like elbows and couplings, and when dealing with older systems, precautions must be taken to avoid disturbing these materials.
  • Fire doors: Asbestos was used in the core of fire doors to enhance their fire resistance, and regular inspection and maintenance are necessary to ensure the safety of such doors.
  • Chalkboard glue: Some older chalkboards were affixed to walls using glue that contained asbestos fibres, and any chalkboards suspected to have asbestos-containing glue should be handled by professionals during removal or renovation.
  • Siding shingles: Asbestos-containing siding shingles were used in the past for their weather resistance and durability, and homeowners should consider having them checked and, if necessary, replaced with safer materials.

The effects of improper asbestos management

On environmental health

Improper asbestos management can severely harm environmental health. When asbestos-containing materials are mishandled, microscopic asbestos fibres can be released into the environment. These fibres, which are resistant to degradation, can contaminate soil and water bodies, posing long-term ecological threats.

The presence of asbestos fibres in the soil can disrupt the balance of microorganisms that are essential for nutrient cycling, impacting soil fertility and plant growth. Moreover, asbestos-contaminated soil can produce dust that carries these fibres back into the air, creating an ongoing source of exposure.

In the case of water contamination, asbestos fibres can infiltrate underground water sources and aquatic ecosystems. This pollution can impact the health of aquatic species and disrupt food chains, ultimately affecting biodiversity. Furthermore, if these contaminated water sources are used for irrigation, asbestos can enter the food chain, posing risks to wildlife and potentially humans.

In essence, the environmental impact of improper asbestos management is vast and far-reaching, highlighting the necessity for rigorous control measures and safe disposal practices. Environmental exposure to asbestos can harm wildlife and ecosystems by disrupting natural processes and causing genetic mutations in organisms.

On human health

Improper asbestos management can have grave consequences for human health. When asbestos-containing materials are not handled correctly, tiny asbestos fibres can become airborne and easily inhaled by individuals. Prolonged exposure to these hazardous fibres can lead to serious health conditions. Asbestos exposure is a major occupational hazard for workers involved in industries like construction, ship building and mining.

One of the most significant health risks associated with asbestos exposure is the development of lung diseases, such as asbestosis and mesothelioma. Asbestosis is a progressive lung disease that can cause severe scarring of the lung tissue, leading to breathing difficulties and reduced lung function. Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive form of cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, heart, or abdomen, and it is almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure.

Aside from these major diseases, asbestos exposure is also linked to lung cancer, particularly in individuals who smoke. The combination of smoking and asbestos exposure greatly amplifies the risk of lung cancer.

Moreover, asbestos fibres can remain dormant in the body for many years before health issues manifest. This long latency period makes early detection and prevention all the more crucial.

How can I best manage asbestos to avoid these harmful effects?

By adhering to the following best practices and taking asbestos management seriously, you can minimise the risk of harmful effects on both human health and the environment:

Identify and assess

First and foremost, conduct a thorough inspection to identify any asbestos-containing materials in your surroundings. This includes checking older buildings and structures that might have used asbestos in construction. Engaging certified professionals to assess the condition of these materials is crucial, as they can determine the risk of exposure and recommend appropriate management strategies.

Follow regulations and guidelines

Familiarise yourself with both local and national regulations regarding asbestos management. Compliance with these regulations is paramount for the safe handling, removal, and disposal of asbestos-containing materials. Ignoring or neglecting these guidelines can not only lead to legal issues but also endanger the health of yourself and others.

Engage certified professionals

It cannot be stressed enough that asbestos management should never be a DIY task. Always hire certified and experienced professionals for asbestos removal and handling. These experts possess the specialised knowledge, training, and equipment necessary to effectively minimise fibre release and ensure a safe and controlled environment during the process.

Use protective gear

Whenever you or professionals are dealing with asbestos, never compromise on personal protective equipment (PPE). Wear appropriate gear, such as high-quality respirators, disposable coveralls, gloves, and shoe covers. This will provide a crucial layer of protection, reducing the risk of inhaling airborne fibres and preventing skin contact.

Work in controlled areas

To prevent the inadvertent spread of asbestos fibres to other parts of the building or environment, enclose the work area completely. Employing negative air pressure and using plastic sheeting, along with airlock systems, will help maintain control and contain any potential release of asbestos.

Safe removal techniques

Opt for safe removal techniques that minimise fibre release. Wetting asbestos-containing materials before removal reduces the amount of dust generated. Additionally, choose hand tools over power tools and avoid abrasive actions that could disturb the material and release fibres.

Proper disposal

After the removal process, ensure that asbestos waste is properly disposed of. Package the waste securely in leak-tight containers that are clearly labelled as asbestos materials. Follow local regulations for the transportation and disposal of asbestos waste at authorised waste facilities.

Educate and train

It's not just about personal safety; everyone involved in asbestos management must be adequately educated and trained. Provide thorough training on asbestos safety protocols to anyone who may come into contact with asbestos, including workers and occupants. This knowledge ensures that everyone is aware of the risks and knows how to handle asbestos-containing materials responsibly.

Monitor air quality

During asbestos removal, regularly monitor the air quality in the work area using appropriate instruments. This continuous monitoring helps verify that fibre levels remain within safe limits and allows for prompt action if any issues arise.

Renovation and demolition plans

Before initiating any renovation or demolition projects in older buildings, conduct comprehensive asbestos surveys. Taking this precautionary step will help identify potential asbestos-containing materials and enable the development of safe plans for handling and removing these materials, thereby reducing the risk of accidental exposure.

Raise awareness

In addition to implementing safety measures, it's essential to raise awareness about the risks of asbestos exposure and the importance of proper management. Educate others about the potential dangers associated with asbestos and its safe handling. A well-informed community can contribute to the prevention of accidents and protect the health of individuals and the environment.

What are the legal requirements for asbestos management in Australia?

In Australia, asbestos management is governed by various regulations and guidelines to ensure the safe handling, removal, and disposal of asbestos-containing materials. The key legal requirements for asbestos management in Australia include:

  • Asbestos Prohibition: As of December 2003, the use, import, and export of all forms of asbestos and asbestos-containing products have been banned in Australia.
  • Asbestos Register and Management Plan: The Work Health and Safety (WHS) regulations in each state and territory require the identification and maintenance of an asbestos register for non-domestic properties. This register must detail the location, condition, and type of asbestos-containing materials present. Additionally, a comprehensive asbestos management plan must be developed and kept up-to-date.
  • Identification and Assessment: For all workplaces built before 31st December 2003, an asbestos assessment must be conducted to identify any asbestos-containing materials. This assessment helps determine the risk level associated with asbestos in the workplace.
  • Control Measures and Safe Work Procedures: Employers and property owners are legally obligated to implement control measures to minimise asbestos exposure risks. This includes ensuring that all asbestos-containing materials are well-maintained and undisturbed whenever possible. When removal is necessary, safe work procedures must be followed to prevent fibre release.
  • Licensed Asbestos Removal: Asbestos removal work that involves friable asbestos (easily crumbled) can only be conducted by licensed professionals with the appropriate class of licence. In some states, non-friable asbestos removal may also require a licence.
  • Asbestos Disposal: Asbestos waste must be transported and disposed of in accordance with specific regulations. It should be double-bagged or securely wrapped and taken to authorised waste facilities designed for asbestos disposal.
  • Worker Training: Employers have a responsibility to provide appropriate asbestos awareness training to workers who may come into contact with asbestos during their work.
  • Notification of Removal: In some states, asbestos removal work may require notification to the relevant workplace health and safety authority prior to commencing the removal process.
  • Air Monitoring: Air monitoring is often required during asbestos removal to ensure that airborne asbestos fibres remain within safe limits.
  • Penalties for Non-compliance: Non-compliance with asbestos management regulations can lead to significant penalties, including fines and legal action.

Where can I learn more about the asbestos management regulations in my state?

For more information; including state legislature on asbestos management, we recommend you consult your relevant State Government Health and Safety website;

How can Octfolio software help me with asbestos management?

Octfolio software offers a comprehensive solution for effective asbestos management. By centralising the asbestos register, the software allows users to record essential information about asbestos-containing materials present in properties or facilities. The platform aids in creating detailed asbestos management plans, scheduling inspections, and conducting risk assessments to prioritise actions.

Octfolio assists in implementing control measures, tracking asbestos removal processes, and monitoring air quality during removal. With features for compliance, reporting, and document management, the software ensures regulatory adherence and organised record-keeping. Real-time updates and alerts keep users informed, while worker training and notifications enhance asbestos safety protocols.

What features does Octfolio have?

To aid with all aspects of asbestos management, Octfolio has the following features;

Octfolio gives you full control over the asbestos management of your business. Get started with Octfolio by booking a meeting or starting a free trial today.

See Octfolio in action

Book a Demo

Sebastian Tiller

Seb has a long history of delivering elegant solutions to complex business problems that conform to the most exacting compliance standards. He prides himself on his ability to connect with customers and humanise software solutions to be understandable and useful to all parties. He’s also enjoys playing story-based single player games and spending time with his young family, building LEGO, attending recitals, and experiencing new restaurants with his wife.

LinkedIn logo