What is asbestos?

Asbestos is the common term used to describe naturally occuring fibrous material which was widely mined from several types of mineral rock.

There are two major groups of asbestos – the amphibole group, which includes blue (crocidolite) and brown (amosite) asbestos and the serpentine group, which includes white asbestos (chrysotile). All asbestos types are classified as carcinogenic (cancer causing) and prolonged exposure to high concentrations of asbestos fibres can cause asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.

White (chrysotile) asbestos is the most common type of asbestos used in the construction of cement based building materials in Australia. Asbestos fibres were widely used in the past because of their robust chemical and physical properties.

Asbestos fibres give protection against fire, corrosion, cold, acids, alkalis, electricity, noise, energy loss, vibration, salt water, frost, dust and vermin. Asbestos also has excellent friction and wear resistance and has been extensively used in brake lining and clutch facings in the automotive industry.

What are the risks associated with asbestos?

Asbestos becomes a health risk when asbestos fibres are released into the air and inhaled. Exposure to asbestos fibres can cause asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. This does not automatically mean that your health is at risk if you find that your home, workplace or vehicle contains materials made from asbestos.

The risk to health increases as the number of fibres inhaled increases, that is, the health risk is related to the dose (the dose is related to the amount of airborne asbestos fibres inhaled and the length of exposure). The diseases associated with asbestos are characterised by long latency periods. It may take up to 40 years between initial exposure and the onset of the disease. Health problems usually occur when people are unaware of the hazards of working with asbestos containing products.