Understanding how asbestos was used in Australian commercial buildings in the past is crucial for a few important reasons.
First, it teaches us about the history of construction materials and practices and the risks they can pose. This knowledge helps architects, builders, and property owners make safe choices today. Second, it reminds us why strict rules and careful handling of asbestos are necessary to protect people and the environment.
Lastly, it helps us figure out how to protect old buildings while dealing with asbestos safely, striking a balance between preserving our architectural heritage and managing the risks.
Introduction to asbestos and its historical use in commercial buildings
Asbestos was widely used in the construction of commercial buildings for several reasons.
- It was highly regarded for its exceptional fire-resistant properties. Asbestos-containing materials could withstand high temperatures and were considered an effective way to reduce the risk of fire, which was a significant concern in many commercial and industrial settings.
- It possessed excellent insulating properties. It was used to insulate buildings against heat, cold, and noise, making commercial spaces more comfortable and energy-efficient.
- It was readily available and relatively inexpensive. Its versatility and affordability made it an attractive choice for builders and contractors.
- It was known for its durability and resistance to corrosion, which meant that materials containing asbestos had a long lifespan, reducing maintenance and replacement costs.
While asbestos offered these advantages, its widespread use in commercial construction eventually raised health concerns due to the release of harmful asbestos fibres when the material deteriorated or was disturbed. These health risks led to increased regulation and the eventual decline of asbestos in construction materials.
The history of asbestos use in commercial buildings in Australia
Was Asbestos Used Pre-1920s
While asbestos mines were in use in various corners of the world, including Canada, South Africa, America, Italy and Russia, asbestos had yet to be used in construction for commercial buildings in Australia.
However, there was a royal commission in 1911 that exposed widespread lung disease among workers in gold mines, leading to the introduction of crucial ventilation laws.
Was Asbestos Used in 1920s
Asbestos still did not have a significant presence in Australia.
In other parts of the world, asbestosis was identified and given its name. Asbestosis is a chronic and progressive lung disease that is caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibres over an extended period.
Was Asbestos Used in 1930s
Three major events occurred in the 1930s with regards to asbestos use in Australia.
The most significant is that late mining magnate Lang Hancock discovers deposits of crocidolite (a.k.a. blue asbestos) in Wittenoom and begins pick and shovel mining operations.
This leads to the widespread use of white, blue and brown asbestos in insulation for machines, tapes, cloths, gaskets and seals, and brake linings for cars. However, the most prominent use of asbestos was that it was mixed with cement and used in the construction of commercial buildings.
Additionally, the Inspector of Factories and Shops in Western Australia reports on the effect of asbestos dust on the lungs of workers in the James Hardie factory in Perth, finding respiratory diseases.
Was Asbestos Used in 1940s
Hancock expanded his mining operations, only for CSR to take over in 1948. At this point, asbestos was used in widespread commercial building construction.
More research was conducted on the effects of asbestos dust, with a report on a mill at Zeehan in Tasmania owned by a CSR subsidiary stating that it is a health hazard and should be eliminated.
The Wittenoom mine was also subjected to heightened scrutiny. Reports are made on the dangerous levels of asbestos dust generated, with recommendations made regarding the need to reduce said dust levels. Warnings are made by health professionals that the sheer amount of dust generated will produce the greatest crop of asbestosis the world has ever seen.
Despite this, no improvement in conditions is noted. Dust levels in the mine are regularly monitored at six to eight times safe levels for the rest of the 40s. Wittenoom records its first asbestosis case.
Was Asbestos Used in 1950s
Australia continued to use asbestos in the construction of commercial buildings.
Western Australia adopted a dust limit of 176 particles per cubic centimetre to try and mitigate asbestos exposure amongst workers. This limit was regularly ignored by Wittenoom, which regularly produced readings of 1000 particles. The Mines and Health Department responded by issuing further warnings.
The Western Australian Health Department discovers six cases of lung damage among Wittenoom workers.
Was Asbestos Used in 1960s
Commercial building construction in Australia continued to include the use of asbestos. D Jansen & Co P/L commenced installing “asbestosfluff” into roof spaces in many homes in Canberra. Homeowners pay less than $100 to have loose-fill friable asbestos material pumped into their roof space as insulation. This would later become known as Mr Fluffy.
From 1961 to 1965, more than 100 cases of lung disease were recorded among past and present Wittenoom workers. The tonnes of asbestos tails being spread were so egregious that the local council warned that it could even threaten tourists. By 1966, CSR was forced to close the mine.
Was Asbestos Used in 1970s
While asbestos continued to be used in the construction of commercial buildings in Australia, there was a considerate pushback around this time. Building unions at workplaces across Australia began industrial action to ban the use of asbestos.
The first public warning on the dangers of asbestos is published in a cover story for Bulletin magazine titled “Is This Killer In Your Home?”. In 1979, D. Jansen/Mr Fluffy ceases operation in Canberra and regional New South Wales.
Was Asbestos Used in 1980s
The 1980s would mark the last decade in which asbestos was used in commercial building construction in Australia, as large-scale legal actions were mounted.
In 1985, Victoria hosted the first successful common law claim for compensation as a result of asbestos-related disease. Three years later, the first victories in court occurred for Wittennoom mesothelioma victims, with judges ruling that CSR acted with “continuing, conscious and contumelious” disregard for its workers safety. The Commonwealth and ACT Governments begin the first clean-up of ‘Mr Fluffy’ visible and accessible loose fill asbestos insulation from affected homes in the ACT.
Was Asbestos Used in 1990s
The clean-up of Mr Fluffy visible and accessible loose fill asbestos insulation from affected homes is continued across the ACT. Additionally, more legal actions were taken to mitigate the widespread use and effects of asbestos.
For example, the Australian Government passed a law called the National Environmental Protection Council Act, which allowed for the creation of National Environmental Protection Measures (NEPM) to protect the environment. Additionally, the Asbestos Disease Foundation of Australia made important changes to laws in New South Wales that helped people affected by dust diseases, setting a precedent for the whole country.
Was Asbestos Used Post-1990s
Multiple steps were taken to mitigate the damage caused by the widespread usage of asbestos in commercial buildings.
The most significant of these steps was the Australia-wide ban on the manufacture and use of all types of asbestos and asbestos-containing materials (ACM), which took effect on 31 December 2003.
Additionally, The Code of Practice for the Management and Control of Asbestos in Workplaces was developed by the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission (NOHSC).
Safe Work Australia was also established as a commonwealth statutory body to protect workers operating on build sites where asbestos might be present. The Government reinforced this by creating the Workplace Health and Safety Act 2011, which set out a framework for the management of asbestos materials in workplaces.
Efforts continue to be made by the Government, as well as other asbestos-management-related agencies to this day to help mitigate the effects of asbestos use and promote a safer environment for workers and tenants alike.