About Asbestos

Learn About Health The Dangers and History Of Asbestos

Australia is one of the countries most severely affected by the mining and use of asbestos. In 2007, 551 Australians succumbed to Mesothelioma, one of the deadly effects of asbestos exposure. Since early 1980s, over 10,000 people have died from the disease and experts predict 25,000 additional asbestos related deaths in the next four decades.

Below, we take a look at the long history of asbestos in the country, types of asbestos, their effects on health and regulations by the Victorian Government regarding handling, removal and licensing.


History Of Asbestos in Australia

Australia has a long history with asbestos, going back as early as the late 19th century when builders and manufacturers were drawn to a mineral that had an impressive list of characteristics.

Its tensile strength, sound absorption capabilities and resistance to heat, chemical and electrical damage led to increased popularity, leading to widespread mining and use starting from the 1930s.

One of the best known mining hubs was Wittenoom in Western Australia. The Wittenoom mine was known for the extraction of one of the most dangerous types of asbestos; Crocidolite (also called blue) asbestos.

Mining started in 1930 and between 1950 and 1960, the town was the only supplier of blue asbestos in Australia. Since the mine was shut down in 1966, hundreds of mesothelioma cases have been identified among workers who worked there.

Another site where there was extensive mining is Woodsreef mine near the town of Barraba. Here, white chrysotile asbestos was produced until the 1983 when the mine was shut down over health reasons.

During most of the 20th century, a large amount of manufacturing in Australia involved asbestos. It was used in plumbing, roofing, shipyards, power stations, insulation floor coverings and ceiling tiles.

In one tragic case, James Hardie Industries that owned asbestos mines distributed factory waste across the country to be used in driveways, playgrounds, park paths and even bags that were used to carry fruits and vegetables. The resultant effects of these negligent actions are immeasurable.

In the 1960s, concerns began to emerge about the health dangers of asbestos. A ban on the use of blue asbestos came into effect in 1967. Brown (amosite) asbestos continued to be used intil the 1980s and was banned in building products in 1989. However, it was still used in friction applications (brake linings and gasket) as recently as 2003. In 2003, a full ban on mining, use, importation or recycling of all types of asbestos was instituted.

Despite the bans and regulations, Australia’s history with asbestos has left a deep mark. Australia is second after the UK in terms of the number of mesothelioma deaths in the world. Five hundred men and a hundred women still develop mesothelioma every year in Australia.

It is estimated that up to a third of Australian homes have asbestos products, presenting a continued health risk.


Types of Asbestos

There are six types of asbestos categorized based on their unique fibres. These different forms are used in varying applications.


1. Chrysotile (White) asbestos

This is the most common type of asbestos and was especially popular in residential and commercial buildings. Today, it can be found in various parts of some buildings including flooring, ceilings, walls and roofing.

Industrial applications of white asbestos included vehicle brake linings, joint compound, boiler seals, gaskets and pipe insulation.

Studies have shown that this type of asbestos takes the longest period of exposure to develop asbestos related diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma.


2. Amosite (Brown) asbestos

With needle like fibres, brown asbestos originates mainly from Africa. The major source of amosite asbestos was Transvaal province in South Africa. Its main use was as a fire retardant in ceiling tiles and thermal insulation products. It was also used widely in plumbing, insulation boards, gaskets, chemical insulation and roofing products.


3. Crocidolite (Blue) asbestos

Blue asbestos is best known for its excellent heat resistance. Wittenoom mine in Australia was a major source of blue asbestos, producing more than 161,000 tones of the mineral between 1943 and 1966.

This type of asbestos is considered to be the most dangerous and has resulted in thousands of deaths in Australia, mostly from mesothelioma. Crocidolite can also cause lung cancer and asbestosis. One of the reasons why it is so dangerous is that it breaks down more easily than other forms of asbestosis, exposing those nearby to harmful asbestos fibres.

Blue asbestos was used in various application and materials including fire protection, insulation boards, chemical insulation, thermal insulation, electrical insulation, spray on coatings and cement products.


4. Tremolite asbestos

This is not a popular variation of asbestos and is mostly found as a contaminant in other popular asbestos types. It has been occasionally found in products such as sealants, paints, insulation, roofing parts and plumbing materials.

Tremolite is rarely used on its own and is often mixed with other minerals such as Talc and Vermiculite. Exposure to these minerals increases risk of lung cancer.


5. Anthophyllite asbestos

Spotting a gray-brown colour, Anthophyllite is not a commonly used form of asbestos. It was often considered to be a contaminant and was present in certain flooring materials.

Anthophyllite has the lowest risk of all asbestos variations, of causing asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma. But there is still a definite and proven connection between the mineral and the development of certain health effects.


6. Actinolite asbestos

It was not used commercially and was considered a contaminant in other types of asbestos.


Health Dangers of Asbestos

As early, as 1890s, doctors realized that workers dealing with asbestos were suffering from lung problems. But the health risks of the mineral were not taken seriously until the second half of the 20th century when a number of countries started regulation the extraction and use of asbestos.

Today, the dangers of asbestos exposure are well documented with the greatest risk coming from lose asbestos particles that get airborne and are breathed in. Once inside the lungs, these particles hardly break down and can remain there for decades, resulting in a number of deadly diseases.

The following are the most common health dangers of asbestos.


1.  Mesothelioma

This is by far the most common effect of exposure to asbestos. Worldwide, thousands of people have died from it and thousands others carry the disease.

This (formerly rare) type of cancer mostly targets the lining of the abdomen and lungs. Fibers from asbestos get trapped inside the body and over time cause a number of biological changes including inflammation, genetic damage and scarring. In many cases, the end result is malignant cancer, which can take up to 3 or 4 decades to set in.

There are four types of malignant mesothelioma classified according to the affected part of the body. They include pleural (lungs) and peritoneal (abdomen) mesothelioma, which make up a large proportion of total infection cases. The two less common varieties are testicular and pericardial (heart) mesothelioma.

Australia has one of the highest cases of mesothelioma in the world owing to its heavy use of asbestos in past years. Experts estimate that up to 11,000 cases remain to be diagnosed.


2. Asbestosis

This is the second most common health effect of asbestos exposure after malignant mesothelioma. Thought it affects the lungs, asbestoses is not a form of cancer. It is a progressive lung disease caused by inhaling asbestos fibres. After years of these fibres residing in the lungs, scar tissue is formed. This causes lung tissue to harden and the lungs are unable to perform optimally.

This is why common symptoms include tightness in the lungs, trouble breathing and chronic coughing.

Like mesothelioma, the disease can last in latency for up to 20 years, showing up when treatment is difficult and expensive.

Smokers who were exposed to asbestos have a greater risk of developing asbestosis as well as lung cancer.


3. Lung cancer

A persistent exposure to a large amount of asbestos fibres (such as in a mine) carries the risk of lung cancer. The risk is increased in people who also smoke. Development of asbestosis-caused lung cancer takes 10 to 20 years and can spread beyond the lungs to other parts of the body if left untreated.


Victorian Government Requirements For Handling Asbestos

Since the end of 2003, all forms of asbestos and asbestos products have been banned in Australia. This includes their importation, mining, manufacture, supply, use and recycling. But there remains extensive risk of exposure from products and buildings that date earlier than 1980s.


In Workplaces

Employers are required to check the leasing agreement for any commercial property to ascertain its state in regards to asbestos and their role in managing it. If you are granted control over it, your duties include identifying and documenting all asbestos cases in a register and clearly indication the presence of asbestos. In most cases, the Government recommends leaving the asbestos undisturbed as it is safer that way.

If you own the premises, then you have the responsibility of identifying the asbestos, documenting it and informing the building occupiers of its presence and any risks. If the asbestos is deemed to be in good condition, the recommendation is to leave it undisturbed. Otherwise, you might need to take preventive action and get it professionally removed.

If in any case removal and disposal is needed, a licensed asbestos specialist is necessary. In limited cases, you can remove it yourself.

Most of these regulations and requirements also apply to self employed individuals, property managers and commercial property owners.


In Homes

If you suspect that your home is contaminated with asbestos, the only sure way to tell is by getting the material tested in an accredited laboratory. Use any one of the laboratories listed by National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA).

An asbestos removal consultant can also help you identify the next step to take.

If you live in a rented residential property, a state of disrepair could signal the presence of asbestos. Before you rent, make sure that you get all the information in the rental agreement regarding the presence of asbestos in the property and its condition. If you suspect your property to have asbestos, first contact your property owner or the Victorian Department of Health.


The Environment

The Victorian government also gives you an opportunity to report cases of asbestos in your environment. Illegal dumping of asbestos is a continued risk. If you suspect illegal asbestos dumping, you can report it online at https://portal.epa.vic.gov.au/irj/portal or through the EPA hotline 1300 EPA VIC (1300 372 842).


Asbestos Removal Procedures

The first step is identifying the presence of asbestos in the home or workplace. This can be done either by bringing in a licensed asbestos specialist or taking the suspect material to an accredited testing laboratory.

If asbestos is positively identified, only a licensed removalist is allowed to handle the removal and disposal process in both residential and commercial premises. Only in very limited circumstances should an individual remove asbestos. (http://www.worksafe.vic.gov.au/safety-and-prevention/health-and-safety-topics/asbestos)


Asbestos Licensing in Victoria

There are four types of licenses you can apply for to be an asbestos remover in Victoria, Australia. They include;

  • Class A license – can remove all forms of asbestos
  • Class A specific friable asbestos license
  • Class B non-friable asbestos removal license
  • Class B specific non-friable asbestos removal license


Friable refers to asbestos that crumbles to powder form when dry. It is highly dangerous. Non-friable asbestos comes mixed with other materials such as cement.
Applying for a Class A license costs $507 while a class B license costs $469. Replacing a license is charged a fee of $45. The license if valid for a period of five years. You can find the application form and additional instructions at the Victorian Worksafe website.



The world today is much wiser about the risks of Asbestos than it was a few decades ago. While the mineral has immense industrial and commercial benefits, the health risks overshadow those benefits.

The Australian Government has done remarkably well at instituting the right regulations concerning asbestos as well as raising public awareness on the dangers of exposure.
Most importantly, it has come up with a number measures and initiatives to identify and help those most affected by asbestos before its dangers were realized.


If you would like further information or have a question you may contact us.