Asbestos was commonly used in:
- cement sheeting (fibro)
- drainage and flue pipes
- roofing, guttering and flexible building boards (eg Villaboard, Hardiflex, etc). Similar cement sheeting products are used today, but are 'asbestos free'
- brakes, clutches and gaskets.
In the 1960's and 70's loose fibre asbestos was used in some parts of NSW as home roof insulation.
How can asbestos affect my health?
Breathing in asbestos fibres can cause asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. The risk of contracting these diseases increases with the number of fibres inhaled and the risk of lung cancer from inhaling asbestos fibres is also greater if you smoke. People who get health problems from inhaling asbestos have usually been exposed to high levels of asbestos for a long time. The symptoms of these diseases do not usually appear until about 20 to 30 years after the first exposure to asbestos.
When does asbestos pose a risk to health?
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.
People who have suffered health effects from exposure to asbestos have generally worked in either the asbestos mining or milling industry, worked in industries involved in making or installing asbestos products, or are from the immediate families of these people. In all of these situations there was exposure to high levels of airborne dust, from either the processes involved or from the clothes of the workers.
Different forms of asbestos material, different risk levels
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.
Removal of loose/friable asbestos or amounts of bonded asbestos sheeting greater than 10 square metres must be done by a licensed person. An accredited asbestos removalist can be contacted through the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association (02) 8586 3555 or by contacting individuals asbestos removalists listed in the yellow pages telephone directory of larger cities. For advice on removal, disposal, and transport of asbestos waste materials in NSW contact Office of Environment & Heritage Pollution Line on 131555 or your local council.
Do not disturb soil or any other material thought to be contaminated with asbestos fibres. Short-term precautions to minimise exposure include:
- spraying with water to prevent soil/dust from becoming airborne, being careful around electrical fittings.
- covering with plastic sheeting or a tarpaulin if possible to avoid exposure to the weather.
- preventing 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).
Further advice concerning the health risks of asbestos can be obtained from your local public health unit on 1300 066 055.
General information on asbestos can be obtained from the WorkCover.