What is asbestos and how is it used?
Asbestos is a naturally-occurring silicate mineral that was used quite extensively in building products up until the late-1980s, due to its versatility, fire- and heat-resistance, insulating properties, durability and strength. It was also used in some auto parts such as brakes, clutches and gaskets.
During the period that asbestos was being used the majority of it was imported from overseas, and a small percentage was mined in Australia. Local mining of asbestos ceased in 1983, and use of the product was banned in 2003 due to the risk of people contracting lung diseases from breathing in the invisible fibres found in asbestos dust.
This means of course that many buildings constructed prior to 1990 may contain asbestos products. The following provides a list of some of the areas where asbestos-containing products were used:
- Cement roofing.
- Shingles, siding and eaves.
- Roof gable-ends.
- Interior and exterior wall cladding (fibro).
- Flue pipes.
- Backings used in floor coverings.
- Brick cladding (artificial).
- Carpet underlay (if made from hessian bags previously used to transport asbestos).
- Heat-resistant fabrics.
- Roofing insulation.
- Spray-on insulation.
- Sealants, fillers and adhesives.
Types of asbestos
Bonded asbestos products are those that are rigid and solid, such as cement-sheeting or fibro. These present a low level of risk as long as they remain intact, undisturbed and in good condition. Once disturbed they may produce dust that increases the risk to people in the vicinity.
Friable or loose asbestos products are those which are not tightly bonded. They include insulation on water-pipes and in old heaters or stoves, and some ceiling insulation. Friable products carry a higher risk level due to the chances of fibres becoming airborne. Bonded products may also become friable if disturbed or damaged in some way during removal or from deterioration.
What is the risk?
The risk of illness from asbestos fibre exposure generally corresponds to the level of exposure. The occasional or intermittent exposure to a relatively low level of the fibres is not considered to carry a high risk of disease. However, repeated exposure to a higher number of fibres poses a much more serious risk.
Breathed-in fibres can lodge in the lungs and cause inflammation over time. This may result in:
- Pleural plaques – scar tissue that forms on the outer lining of the lungs.
- Asbestosis – inflammation / scarring of the lungs.
- Lung cancer – tumours in the air-passages.
- Mesothelioma – cancer of the chest and abdominal cavities.
Mesothelioma is the most serious of the diseases listed above and nearly always occurs in people who have worked in the asbestos industry – such as in mining or production.
What is the exposure ‘safe level’?
There is no designated safe level for exposure, and this means that if a church building contains any asbestos, it’s vital that owners / occupiers take steps to minimise the risk to employees, congregants, volunteers and members of the public from exposure to asbestos dust.
To find out if your building does contain asbestos, an asbestos survey or test should be carried out. More information on this can be found at NATA (National Association of Testing Authorities).
What should be done?
If your building is found to contain asbestos materials, you will need to keep an asbestos register, which includes information on the location, type, nature (bonded or friable) of the material, its potential risk level, and a list of work activities that may cause it to become friable or damaged. Friable asbestos may need to be enclosed and sealed.
Any removal of asbestos should be handled by a professional contractor. Class-B licence-holders are qualified to remove bonded asbestos only, while Class-A’s can remove both types. The work must be done safely to prevent exposure to workers and others – see Worksafe or SafeWork Australia for more information. There are also strict guidelines for the disposal of asbestos – contact the EPA (Environmental Protection Authority) for details if required.
Written by Tess Oliver
Tags: construction, health & safety, risk management