Despite the fact that use of asbestos in the Australian building industry has ceased since the 1980s and been officially outlawed since 2003, the risk of exposure still remains for the current and future generations.
Countless buildings that contain asbestos still stand. While almost all pose no risk of exposure if building materials are left undisturbed, unfortunately renovations and natural disasters such as floods and cyclones have the potential to dislodge asbestos fibres, increasing the potential for exposure.
All forms of asbestos have the potential to be deadly, but exposure to certain types can be even more dangerous. Below are the three major classifications and where they have traditionally been used.
White Asbestos – Chrysotile
Chrysotile is the most commonly used variety of asbestos around the world. It's the form of asbestos that causes the most health problems, but only because it's the most widely used. White asbestos materials are classified in the serpentine group, characterised with curly and flexible fibres that are not as easy to inhale as the needle like fibres of other varieties.
Chrysotile has most commonly been used in brake linings, paints and insulation, fireproofing products, and fibres woven into threads and cloth. While miners of chrysotile have a much lower chance of contracting mesothelioma from exposure when compared to other asbestos forms, rates of asbestos-related cancer are still higher in Canadian provinces like Quebec where the fibres are still mined today.
Brown Asbestos – Amosite
Considered the second most dangerous form of asbestos and no longer mined, amosite is grouped in the amiphole classification of asbestos fibres and is characterised by brittle, needle-like fibres. Easily inhaled and able to penetrate body tissue when fibres are disturbed, brown asbestos has been used as insulation and cement roofing in residential and industrial buildings and in flooring, roof and ceiling tiles. The substance is friable and crumbles easily.
Blue Asbestos – Crocidolite
Multiple studies have suggested that blue asbestos exposure is responsible for the greatest number of asbestos-related deaths. Around the thickness of a strand of hair, once inside the body they do not easily disintegrate. Compared to other amiphole asbestos varieties, blue asbestos products are more brittle, presenting more of a health risk as materials break down more readily.
Less heat resistant than brown or white asbestos, blue asbestos was used as insulation in cement piping, insulation boards and other cement products to add strength. More than 2000 miners and residents died in the West Australian town of Wittenoom from exposure from crocidolite fibres.
If your home was built before 1987, don't risk undertaking renovations or building work before carrying out a professional asbestos assessment. Many building material may be safe to leave undisturbed. If removal is deemed, however, only a licensed asbestos removal contractor with the skills and protection to safely and effectively remove asbestos should be employed. No matter white, brown or blue, any exposure to asbestos has the potential to be fatal.