What does asbestos look like?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring group of minerals that achieve a fluffy consistency through processing. Asbestos fibres are flexible and soft, and also resist heat, corrosion and electricity. Asbestos has many useful qualities! However, exposure to asbestos fibres is also highly toxic.
Asbestos is not a single mineral. Instead, the term “asbestos” is a group of silicate minerals that share the same texture and properties. Asbestos is often classified by colour:
- “white asbestos” (chrysotile)
- “brown asbestos” (amosite)
- “blue asbestos” (crocidolite)
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a group of six naturally occurring fibrous minerals. The mineral structure is made up of fibres that are thin and needle-like. Asbestos can strengthen and fireproof materials, but it is banned in many countries. Exposure to asbestos is linked to a number of cancers and diseases, including mesothelioma and asbestosis. Asbestos is banned in Australia. However, it is still present in many historic buildings. In contrast, asbestos use is regulated, but not completely banned, in the United States.
Pure asbestos makes an effective insulator. It can be processed into cloth, cement, paper, plastic and other materials to give them the desired qualities. But when someone ingests or inhales asbestos dust, the tiny mineral fibres can become trapped forever in their body. Over decades, trapped asbestos fibres can cause inflammation, scarring and eventually genetic damage to the body’s cells. An aggressive cancer called mesothelioma is almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure. Asbestos exposure also causes other forms of cancer and lung diseases as well.
How to identify asbestos?
Sometimes it’s easy to spot asbestos. Other times, you can’t tell building materials that contain asbestos just by looking at them. Only asbestos testing by licensed professionals can determine the presence of asbestos. When in doubt, treat building materials as if asbestos is present and take all the necessary precautions during handling.
The microscopic fibres within asbestos can’t be seen by the human eye. In order to identify it within another material, you need to know what materials to investigate. Pure asbestos can be made into paper, felt, cloth or rope. Asbestos fibres have also been mixed into cements (fibro), drywall compounds, paint, sealants, plastics and adhesives. Signs that a building contains asbestos include:
- old flooring tiles in a 9-inch by 9-inch pattern
- pipes that have white or gray insulation, especially around the fittings
- popcorn ceilings in historic buildings (particularly construction dating from 1930s-1980s)
Early asbestos materials often have a characteristic woven pattern on the surface, like small dimples or shallow “scoops” covering the surface. Later materials have a smoother, finer weave. This is not a foolproof identification, but seeing the characteristic weave on the surface merits taking asbestos precautions.
What is the difference between asbestos and fibre cement?
Fibre cements, also known as ‘fibro’, ‘asbestos cement’ or ‘AC sheeting’ and can contain 10-15% of asbestos. Some fibre cements can be up to 40% asbestos! In Australia and most countries, cellulose fibres have replaced asbestos in fibre cement products. Old fibro is safe to be around unless it forms cracks, becomes damaged, or needs to be worked on (i.e. sawed into or broken down).
When was asbestos banned in Australia?
Asbestos has not been used in domestic building materials since the 1980s. However, it was not until 31 December, 2003 that asbestos-containing products were banned in Australia.
It is now illegal to import, store, supply, sell, install, use or re-use these materials. If you’re worried about being in compliance with asbestos regulations, talk to a professional now.
How to remove asbestos?
For safety and legal purposes, it is recommended to use a licenced asbestos removalist. In NSW, individuals are permitted to remove up to 10 square metres of bonded asbestos without professional help. When removing more than 10 square metres from a site, individuals are required to hire a qualified asbestos removalist or register with a NSW SafeWork bonded asbestos removal licence.
Any friable asbestos must be removed qualified asbestos removalists.
- Wear PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) including respirator, dust mask
- Make sure your mask has two straps to hold it firmly in place
- Wear a hat, gloves, disposable coveralls, and safety glasses or goggles
- Don’t eat, smoke or in the work area
- Wash hands and face with soap before meal breaks and after work
- Don’t use power tools
- Don’t water blast or scrub asbestos materials
- Evenly mist asbestos products with water
- Avoid drilling and cutting into asbestos products
- Don’t drop fibro sheets
When was asbestos first used?
Archaeological evidence suggests that asbestos has been used since at least 2500 B.C. Asbestos mining and use soared during the industrial revolution. In the 1800s, chrysotile deposits were found and mined in Canada, while crocidolite was found and excavated in South Africa.
How dangerous is asbestos?
It is never “safe” to be exposed to asbestos. The only way to ensure safety is to hire the job out to licenced asbestos removal professionals. That being said, asbestos always has the worst effects when a person is exposed to an intense concentration of it, or they are exposed on a regular basis over a long period of time. As asbestos accumulates in the body with each new exposure, there is no known way to reverse the cellular damage in lungs, skin and soft palate tissues.
The majority of patients who suffer from asbestos-related diseases are males in their 60s or older. Asbestos-related diseases take decades of repeated exposure to develop. For this reason, diseases such as mesothelioma usually trace back to worksite hazards at factories that were historically staffed by men, i.e. insulation factories, tile factories, etc.
Asbestos is not hazardous if fibres are encapsulated or otherwise unable to aerate (break off and float around). Concern focuses on friable asbestos. “Friable” materials crumble easily and break off into particles that could be inhaled, similar to lead paint. Widely used products that may contain friable asbestos include:
- acoustical plaster
- paper products
- spackling compounds
If you have any concerns about exposure to friable asbestos, don’t put yourself or your workers at risk. Contact a licenced team of asbestos removal experts today.