Questions such as “what is asbestos poisoning?” or “what are the dangers of asbestos?” are important questions to ask. While we understand that, despite being used in building construction in Australia for decades, asbestos is a dangerous substance; a lot of people don’t actually understand why.
That’s certainly understandable. Because Governments at both a state and federal level have effectively established a variety of regulations as well as initiatives to stop widespread asbestos exposure, it’s easy to not really understand what makes asbestos so dangerous.
However, asbestos is still dangerous, and it pays to know why. This is especially true if you run a business in a building that might contain asbestos, as it is your responsibility to ensure a safe workplace for your employees, as well as a work environment that is compliant with government regulation.
What are the dangers of asbestos?
Exposure to airborne asbestos particles poses a great health risk to anybody in the surrounding environment. When asbestos fibres become airborne, they are incredibly easy to inhale, at which point, they travel to the lungs. Depending on the quantity inhaled, asbestos fibres can cause extensive damage to the lungs, which can then result in debilitating and potentially life threatening diseases.
Below, we’ve listed the most common diseases that come from asbestos fibre inhalation:
Asbestosis (a.k.a. Asbestos poisoning) is a chronic and progressive lung disease caused by inhaling asbestos fibres over a long period of time, taking 5-20 years before symptoms develop. The accumulated, inhaled asbestos fibres produce scarring of the lung. The ensuing scar tissue causes the lungs to stiffen and stop working properly.
Symptoms include breathlessness, tightness in the chest, persistent coughing and the skin may have a bluish tinge from lack of oxygen. Getting enough oxygen from each breath needs a much greater effort. Asbestosis usually worsens over time, and it can lead to respiratory failure and death.
An additional risk caused by excessive asbestos inhalation is lung cancer. While the majority of people exposed to asbestos do not typically get lung cancer, there are still cases in which people have gotten lung cancer that was linked to asbestos exposure.
Symptoms of lung cancer include excessive coughing that gets worse or doesn’t go away, chest pain, shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing up blood, feeling very tired all the time and weight loss with no known cause.
The pleura is the tissue that lines the chest cavity and covers the surface of the lungs. Asbestos may produce thickened patches on the pleura (a.k.a. pleural plaques) or a widespread fibrosis (scarring) of the pleura accompanied by pleural effusions (fluid in the chest cavity). These conditions will show up on chest x-rays but they are not cancerous. They also may not cause symptoms but they will reduce lung capacity as shown in lung function tests.
There are three different types of pleural disorders; pleurisy, pleural effusion, and pneumothorax. Pleurisy is inflammation of the pleura. Pleural effusion and pneumothorax occur when an infection, medical condition, or chest injury causes fluid, pus, blood, air, or other gases to build up in the pleural space.
Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer that is mainly caused by asbestos. Mesothelioma takes many years to develop (around 20 to 40 years). Even if you haven’t been exposed to asbestos for many years, it is unfortunately still possible to develop mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma often affects the lungs but it is not the same as lung cancer. Mesothelioma can also affect the abdomen, but this is less common. Most people who are exposed to asbestos in small amounts do not develop mesothelioma.
Australia has one of the highest rates of mesothelioma in the world, attributable to our widespread use of asbestos in building construction over the course of decades.
Some FAQs about asbestos
Now that we’ve discussed the diseases that asbestos exposure can cause; we’re going to answer some general questions about asbestos. These include when asbestos is dangerous (a very important distinction to make), the risk levels of different kinds of asbestos, as well as what precautions you can take in order to avoid exposure to asbestos.
When is asbestos dangerous?
Asbestos fibres can pose a risk to health if airborne, as inhalation is the main way that asbestos enters the body. Small quantities of asbestos fibres are present in the air at all times, and are being breathed by everyone without any ill effects. Most people are exposed to very small amounts of asbestos as they go about their daily lives and do not develop asbestos-related health problems.
Finding that your home or workplace is made from fibro products does not mean your health is at risk. Studies have shown that these products, if in sound condition and left undisturbed, are not a significant health risk. If the asbestos fibres remain firmly bound in cement, generally you do not need to remove the fibro.
Do different kinds of asbestos carry different levels of risk?
There are different types of asbestos, but whether or not they carry health risks depends less on the type of asbestos, and more on the material that said asbestos is cased in. If asbestos fibres are in a stable material such as bonded in asbestos-cement sheeting such as fibro and in good condition they pose little health risk. However where fibro or other bonded asbestos sheeting is broken, damaged or mishandled fibres can become loose and airborne posing a risk to health. Disturbing or removing it unsafely can create a hazard.
In materials such as pipe lagging and sprayed roof insulation asbestos fibres are not bound in a matrix. High concentrations of fibres are much more likely to be released into the atmosphere when these materials are disturbed or removed.
What precautions should I take in order to avoid asbestos exposure in the home?
- Do not disturb soil or any other material thought to be contaminated with asbestos fibres
- Spray with water to prevent soil/dust from becoming airborne, being careful around electrical fittings
- Cover with plastic sheeting or a tarpaulin if possible to avoid exposure to the weather
- Prevent access by children, and/or pets
- Cover children's toys
- Use wet clean up procedures used rather than dry sweeping or vacuuming
- Where loose fibre asbestos insulation may have been installed do not enter the roof space & restrict access to the roof cavity through the man-hole and vents
- If you must enter areas of your home thought to be contaminated with dust containing asbestos fibres use the appropriate Australian Standards (AS) approved respirator or dust mask recommended for the job (see manufacturer's recommendation)
Who are the important stakeholders with regards to asbestos?
Here, we’ll address the types of people most affected by asbestos; from the highest risk of adverse health effects, to those that are responsible for transporting and disposing of asbestos, to who you can contact if you need help regarding asbestos.
Who has the greatest risk of asbestos exposure?
Workers involved in the mining, milling or manufacture of asbestos and in the construction, power and shipbuilding industries may have been exposed in the period before stringent controls were enforced. Families of asbestos workers may also have been exposed to asbestos fibres brought home on workers’ clothing.
Nowadays, the greatest risk regarding asbestos is those that are operating in a non compliant workplace. That is why it is not only important, it is mandatory that business owners adopt the correct measures to ensure the compliance of their business and mitigate any potential asbestos exposure for their workers.
Who is responsible for the transporting and disposal of asbestos?
The disposal of asbestos waste is controlled by the Environment Protection Authority (EPA). Further information is available in the EPA publication Asbestos Transport and Disposal, which describes the safe handling, transport and disposal of asbestos-containing waste.
Who can I contact in the event that I need help regarding asbestos?
- If you think you have been in contact with asbestos, see your doctor.
- If you are worried about asbestos in your home or in general, you can discuss your concern with Asbestoswise or the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency.
- Fibrocement cladding can be tested to see if it contains asbestos. Contact the National Association of Testing Authorities.
- Visit Lung Foundation Australia's website to learn what you can do to protect your lungs if you’re working with, or are exposed to, asbestos dust.
Who should I contact if I want to manage asbestos in my workplace?
Octfolio is a simple yet comprehensive software solution that lets you control the management of your asbestos assets. It contains every function that you need in order to successfully handle all aspects of asbestos management services, including;
- Asset management
- Report management
- Document management
- Maintenance management
- Digital asbestos register
- Field data collection
- Automated reporting
- Workflow automation
- Asbestos mapping software