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Asbestos: The Repugnant Particulate

Credit: Canva

Given it's National Asbestos Awareness Week, we thought this would be a good time to delve into what is probably the world's most repugnant particulate (with silica coming in close second).

In Australia, it's estimated that around 4,000 people die each year from asbestos-related diseases.

In this article, we'll explore why asbestos is so dangerous and measures you can take to protect the health of you and your employees.

We'll answer these questions for you:

What is Asbestos?

Credit: Canva

Asbestos is a silicate material that occurs naturally in the earth's crust. It can be found in rocks and soil. Asbestos has long, thin, fibrous crystals that can be dangerous if inhaled. When materials containing asbestos are disturbed, those tiny crystal fibers can become airborne.

Asbestos gained its popularity because of its hardiness. It is highly resistant to heat and corrosion making it ideal for building products and for use where fire-resistant materials are needed.

Mining of asbestos began in earnest around the late 1800s. It was used prolifically across the world throughout the 20th century. In fact, its use can be traced back 4500 years when Greeks used it to make fire-resistant materials for their clothes and linens!

By the late 1970s, however, the use of asbestos began to decline. Health experts were starting to link asbestos exposure to chronic, and sometimes fatal, lung diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma.

The use of asbestos-containing products is now prohibited in many countries. It wasn't until December 2003 that asbestos was totally banned in Australia.

  1. Chrysotile (white)

  2. Actinolite (brown)

  3. Amosite (brown)

  4. Anthophyllite (blue)

  5. Crocidolite (blue)

  6. Tremolite

All forms of asbestos can be harmful but of these six, chrysotile is considered to be somewhat less deleterious. You can read more (much more!) about the toxicology of asbestos here.

You may have heard of the terms friable and non-friable asbestos. Friable asbestos is crumbly and powdery. It can become easily airborne and inhaled deep into the lungs. Non-friable asbestos is more stable and is typically mixed in with concrete or other bonding materials. It is less dangerous than the friable form (but can become friable with age or damage).

Where is Asbestos Found?

Asbestos, in its natural form, is found in rocks, soil, and even water supplies.

Asbestos can be mined. Some of the major mining sites being in Canada, South Africa, Russia, America and Italy.

Asbestos is found in many manufactured products including boarding, roofing felt, rope seals, sprayed coatings on ceilings, floor tiles and much more.

But asbestos is not limited to building materials. Household items such as make-up, hair dryers and fake snow (of all things) have been known to contain this dangerous substance.

Because asbestos was once used so widely in building materials (over 3,000 different products!), it is estimated that around 1/3 of Australian homes contain at least some asbestos. Commerical buildings can also contain asbestos, especially those constructed before the 1990s.

Folks who work in trades such as construction or demolition where asbestos may be disturbed are at an increased risk of exposure. Workers whose job it is to remove asbestos are, of course, more prone to overexposure.

But anyone working with or around asbestos-containing materials may be at risk.

It's important to note that you can't look at a material or structure and know if it contains asbestos or not. A qualified asbestos assessor is needed to determine if and to what extent asbestos may be present.

If asbestos needs to be assessed or removed, you must engage with a qualified, licensed asbestos assessor/removalist.

Here's a list of how to do that for each state/territory:

What are the Health Effects of Asbestos?

The two primary diseases that can be caused by asbestos are asbestosis and mesothelioma. Let's take a look at both of these.


Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease that results when microscopic asbestos fibers get lodged into the lung tissues and cells. The body reacts by creating scar tissue. Another name for scarring of the lungs is pulmonary fibrosis.

Those white patches you see in the chest x-ray on the left are scar tissue. The x-ray on the right shows normal, healthy lungs.

Credit: Canva

Once the lungs are scarred, the damage is irreversible and gets progressively worse.

Symptoms of asbestosis are:

  • Coughing

  • Shortness of breath and/or wheezing

  • Weight loss

  • Chest pain

  • Hemoptysis (coughing up blood)

It can take up to 20 years for these symptoms to manifest in someone with long-term exposure to asbestos.

Secondhand exposure is also possible. Workers exposed to asbestos can carry the fibers home on their clothing and in their hair putting household members at risk.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for asbestosis and it can sometimes be fatal.


Our lungs, heart, abdominal cavity and pelvis are all covered in a layer of mesothelium. Mesothelium is a thin membrane made up of thin epithelial cells. These membranes protect vital structures and help with breathing.

People exposed to asbestos can develop pleural (lung) mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a very aggressive form of cancer of the mesothelium. In most cases, death is inevitable. The average life expectancy of someone with this type of malignancy is around 18 months.

The symptoms of mesothelioma are similar to other illnesses and cancer and may include:

  • Fevers and excessive sweating

  • Tiredness / weakness

  • Weight loss / poor appetite

  • Chest pain

  • Chronic dry cough

While there is no cure for mesothelioma, symptoms can be managed to improve quality of life.

How Much is Too Much?

It's important to note that there is no safe threshold for asbestos that can protect you from developing an asbestos-related disease (World Health Organization).

Most developed countries have workplace exposure standards (WES) that dictate the airborne concentration of a particular substance that must not be exceeded over a specified amount of time.

In Australia, the WES for asbestos is 0.1 fiber per milliliter of air over an 8-hour period. Essentially, this means that no amount of asbestos is safe, especially if someone is exposed over many days, weeks or years. The more exposure, and the longer the duration, the more likely you are to develop health complications due to asbestos.

What Measures Should Be in Place to Mitigate the Risks?

Credit: NIOSH

To manage risks in any workplace, most health and safety managers and PCBUs refer to the hierarchy of controls.

The hierarchy of controls serves as a basic framework for effectively prioritizing risk reduction strategies in a systematic manner. This structured approach consists of five levels: elimination, substitution, engineering controls, administrative controls, and personal protective equipment (PPE).

Starting with the highest level of control, the hierarchy encourages the elimination of hazards wherever possible, followed by substituting hazardous processes or materials with safer alternatives. If complete elimination or substitution isn't feasible, engineering controls are introduced to isolate workers from potential risks, subsequently supported by administrative controls that encompass procedures and policies to regulate exposure. Finally, as a last line of defense, appropriate personal protective equipment is provided.

When it comes to asbestos, however, PPE, especially respiratory protective equipment, is almost always required to protect from airborne asbestos fibers.

But there's more to managing asbestos risks than implementing the hierarchy of controls. States and territories have very specific laws, codes of compliance, and guidelines for managing, handling and/or removing asbestos. Proper and lawful disposal also has to be considered.

It's imperative to follow your state/territory laws to ensure you're compliant and doing everything you can to keep yourself and others safe.

Here are the links for regulatory compliance by state/territory:

Respiratory Protective Equipment

Because we are all about respiratory protection here at Fit Test Victoria, we had to include a short section dedicated to the topic.

State-specific laws and compliance codes offer guidance on how to select, manage and dispose of PPE/RPE. Different levels of asbestos work/removal warrant different types/levels of PPE. For example, the WorkSafe Victoria compliance code for managing asbestos has a guide to RPE section in Appendix H. Some compliance codes don't recommend using disposable filtering facepiece respirators for ongoing work with asbestos (and we don't either).

Employers must have a written respiratory protection program in place (in line with the AS/NZS 1715: 2009) if any workers are required to wear RPE - no matter the reason!

Regardless of the type of respiratory protection needed - whether half-face, full-face or disposable - the masks must fit right to ensure the wearer is being adequately protected. There's no way to know, just by looking, if a mask fits properly. Fit testing is the only way to know that the respirator is providing its stated level of protection.

Anyone who wears RPE must be educated and trained on how to wear it safely and appropriately.

If you need assistance implementing your respiratory protection program and getting your folks fit tested, we can help with that.

Wrapping Up

While our country has officially banned the use and importation of asbestos and asbestos-containing products, it still persists in in older buildings and homes. And it continues to be a cause for concern.

Effective and consistently implemented risk management strategies are imperative to handle and manage existing asbestos-containing materials and prevent further exposure and illnesses.

By prioritizing awareness, complying with regulations and compliance codes, and responsible management practices, it is absolutely possible to mitigate the risks and reduce (hopefully eliminate) asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma.

And don't forget about your properly fitted respiratory protective equipment :-).

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All rights reserved. No part of this blog post may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the copyright owner.


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