Asbestos - what is it?

Asbestos is a silicate mineral, mined from the earth in much the same way as any other mineral. The wide use of asbestos over thousands of years is due to its resistance to heat and chemicals.

Types Of Asbestos:

  • WHITE ASBESTOS (Chrysotile) has curly fibres which are difficult to separate. They are white to grey in colour.
  • BROWN ASBESTOS (Amosite) is the type of asbestos found most often in sprayed insulation materials.
  • BLUE ASBESTOS (Crocidolite)

What are the health effects of asbestos exposure?

Asbestos is known to be very toxic, especially following prolonged exposure. The ill health effects of exposure to asbestos arise from breathing in, and retention of, very small fibres of asbestos.

The finest asbestos fibres, with a diameter of less than .0008mm, penetrate deep into the lungs of exposed workers and are never removed. The longest of the fibres defy the body's normal defences and clearance mechanisms. Over time, the diseases caused by asbestos are:

Progressive scarring (fibrosis) of the lung, leading to pain, and breathlessness. The first symptoms can appear 15 to 20 years after exposure. The condition can lead to more serious conditions, and there is no known cure.

Tumours of the bronchial tubes and lungs, occurring up to 25 to 30 years after first exposure, and normally fatal. The risk increases greatly in workers who smoke. The ICFTU estimate that at least one case of lung cancer in 10 is caused by exposure to asbestos

A cancer of the lining of the chest (pleura) or of the abdomen (peritoneum), this tumour thickens the lining and may eventually totally enclose the lung. Painful and invariably fatal, it usually develops 20 - 30 years after sometimes even minimal exposure. The Mesothelioma in Australia Incidence 1982 to 2008 Mortality 1997 to 2007 revealed that the number of new cases of mesothelioma in Australia increased dramatically between 1982 and 2008. In 2005, 522 deaths were attributed to the disease. Asbestos was widely used up until the late 1980's and with a latency period between exposure to asbestos fibres and the diagnosis of mesothelioma of up to 40 years, the authors report that mesothelioma should peak by 2021.

Most recent Mesothelioma in Australia Incidence report

In August 2019 the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released a new report, Mesothelioma in Australia 2018 which can be downloaded from this page on the AIHW website. Each year in Australia, between 700 and 800 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma. In 2018, 699 people died from this rare and aggressive cancer, based on Australian Mesothelioma Registry (AMR) data at 1 May 2019. Australia has one of the highest measured incidence rates of mesothelioma in the world (Bray et al. 2017). According to analysis of the AMR, the ‘average’ Australian with mesothelioma:

  • was male
  • was diagnosed at around 75 years of age
  • was exposed to asbestos in both occupational and non-occupational settings
  • lived for around 11 months after diagnosis.

Like in other countries, the rate of mesothelioma has not decreased as much as predicted. 

The May 2015 edition of the annual mesothelioma incidence report produced using AIHW data, Mesothelioma in Australia: Incidence (1982 to 2013) and Mortality (1997 to 2012) is the seventh report of the series. In 2011, 690 new cases of mesothelioma were diagnosed in Australia. The preliminary number of diagnoses for 2013 was 575. The number of new mesothelioma cases increased in most years since 1982, when national data first became available, and peaked at 690 in 2011.

The previous report, Mesothelioma in Australia: incidence 1982 to 2009, mortality 1997 to 2011 revealed that in 2009 there were 666 new cases of mesothelioma diagnosed in Australia.  Alarmingly, but unfortunately not surprisingly, the total number of new cases of mesothelioma diagnosed had risen steadily in most years since 1982.

The report states two studies have found that the incidence of mesothelioma will peak in the next few years, while a third study found the peak will occur in 2021. It notes that Australia was one of the biggest producers and consumers of asbestos-containing products in the 20th century, with 70,000 asbestos-cement houses being built in NSW alone between 1945 and 1954. One in four new houses in Australia was clad in asbestos cement well into the 1960s.

OTHER CANCERS of the larynx, stomach, large intestine and increasingly there is evidence of cancers such as ovary, breast, kidney and bone marrow.

All of these cancers and, in particular mesothelioma, have been produced in humans and in animals BY ALL FORMS OF ASBESTOS. (See short video 'Diseases from Inhaling Asbestos')

There are a number of asbestos support groups that can provide information and assistance to victims of asbestos related diseases and their families.

Other indications of asbestos exposure are:

  • pleural plaques - patches of thickening of the lining of the chest wall and over the diaphragm;
  • pleural effusion - collection of fluid within the chest but outside the lung.

Asbestos is likely to be in a building if:

  • It was built or refurbished between 1940 and the mid/late 1980's in particular;
  • It also has a steel frame; and/or
  • It has boilers with thermal insulation.

Last amended March 2020