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Australia has quite a history of the use of asbestos. At the time, the country’s consumption rate of asbestos per capita was among the highest. Even though there’s a current ban on asbestos, the use of asbestos products and the mining of asbestos materials, you still need to be careful about the legacy asbestos has left behind.

So, when was asbestos first used in Australia, and what are the risks of asbestos exposure? You can also uncover more about the history of asbestos, asbestos-related diseases, and regulations for asbestos removal and management. This post rounds up by considering how licensed asbestos removalists can help. Let’s find out.

First Use of Asbestos in Australia

The first use of asbestos in Australia can be traced to the early 1900s when it was first introduced. The naturally occurring mineral was quite affordable and had beneficial industrial properties.

Thus, you shouldn’t be surprised that Australia’s per-capita asbestos consumption rate in the 1950s was the highest. This can be linked to the country’s asbestos mining activities. However, the exportation of Australian asbestos experienced a decline from the late 1960s.

The use of building materials containing asbestos in Australia continued even up until the late 1980s. Subsequently, there was increased awareness of the dangers of asbestos until; finally, asbestos was banned in Australia in 1983. However, the ban was on the manufacture of asbestos, which means Australia entirely banned asbestos use and importation on 1st January 2004.

When Did Asbestos Mining Start in Australia?

  • Asbestos was mined in various regions at different times.
  • Baryulgil and Barraba (Woodsreef) have a history of asbestos mining dating from 1918 – 1983.
  • WA’s Yampire Gorge mined asbestos from the early 1930s to 1943.
  • In NSW, it was mined from 1940 to 1979.  
  • In addition, Wittenoom Gorge is known to have mined asbestos from 1943 to 1966. 
  • In mining and exporting Australian asbestos, many workers became exposed to asbestos.

History of Asbestos in Australia and Globally

The history of asbestos globally is as follows:

  • Crocidolite, also called blue asbestos, was discovered in Free State, South Africa, in the early 19th century. 
  • Chrysotile or white asbestos was found in Southeastern Quebec in 1876. 
  • The location where Amosite or brown asbestos was discovered is in Transvaal, South Africa.
  • Meanwhile, white asbestos was banned in the UK, but older buildings built before 1999 still pose some risks of asbestos exposure.
  • In 2005 the European Union banned asbestos.

The history of asbestos in Australia is as follows:

  • 1911: Ventilation laws were introduced after the Royal Commission revealed widespread lung disease in Australian gold mines.
  • 1935: Western Australia’s Inspector of Factories and Shops reported on the effect of asbestos dust on the lungs of Perth Factory workers.
  • 1943: Asbestos dust is reported as a health hazard in an asbestos mill report.
  • 1946: The occurrence of Wittenoom’s first case of Asbestosis.
  • 1959: The discovery of six cases of lung damage at Wittenoom by a WA Health Department Official.
  • 1961: Detection of the first mesothelioma (ex-Wittenoom workers) due to exposure to asbestos in the workplace.
  • 1961-1965: Over 100 cases of lung disease were recorded and associated with Wittenoom.
  • 1965: Local Council gave warnings on risks of asbestos exposure from Wittenoom.
  • 1970: Australian building unions began industrial action protesting the use of asbestos. This ultimately contributed to the absolute ban on asbestos importation and exportation.
  • 1979 – 1981: Union members went on a strike, especially about health and safety concerns in Wollongong Coke Ovens and Melbourne’s Blue Harris Trains.
  • 1989: The toll at Wittenoom exceeded 500. The Medical Research Council predicted a final Wittenoom toll of 2,000.
  • 1992: The Occupational Health and Safety (Asbestos) Regulations were introduced in Victoria, Australia, to protect against workplace asbestos exposure. Shirly White also founded the Asbestos Disease Support Society in Queensland.
  • 2001: James Hardie established the Medical Research and Compensation Foundation.
  • 2004: This is the year asbestos was banned in Australian workplaces.
  • 2005: An agreement was signed between the NSW Government and James Hardie to provide asbestos victims with funding of up to 4.5 billion dollars.
  • 2013: The (ASEA) Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency was formed to coordinate and report on implementing the national strategic plan. ASEA later developed the National Asbestos Profile (NAP), which includes information on importing and exporting asbestos.

The National Strategic Plan for Asbestos Awareness and Management aims to increase awareness about asbestos exposure risks. It also provides a framework for managing asbestos-containing materials and the health risks of asbestos exposure.

Asbestos-Related Diseases

It may take up to 25 years or more for asbestos-related diseases to develop. The inhaled asbestos fibres are difficult to break down and become trapped in the body. Three major asbestos-related diseases known to arise from asbestos exposure directly include:

  • Asbestosis: A relatively milder asbestos-related disease compared to the others. However, it can lead to lung cancer, pulmonary heart disease, and mesothelioma.
  • Lung cancer: This leads to a more significant number of asbestos-related deaths in Australia. If you smoke, you are likely to have a higher risk of developing asbestos-related lung cancer.
  • Mesothelioma: Directly caused by asbestos exposure. It is an aggressive type of cancer that affects vital organs.

Regulations for Asbestos Management

As a homeowner or property owner, you should know about the dangers of asbestos and how to go about asbestos removal. After all, asbestos-containing materials are still prevalent in some residential, commercial, and industrial properties. The asbestos removal and management regulations include the following:

  • You should be well-trained and licensed if you are a worker who engages with asbestos materials.
  • A Class B Licence only allows you to remove non-friable bonded asbestos materials.
  • You must still be licensed to remove and handle less than 10m2 of non-friable asbestos. Class A Licence holders can remove and handle both friable and non-friable asbestos.

Asbestos-Containing Products

Within the building industry, asbestos can be found in many building products and cement sheets. Asbestos-containing materials can be found throughout Australia in the commercial, automotive, and manufacturing industries. After all, there was widespread use of asbestos in these industries.

Asbestos-containing products include air-conditioning plants, duct work, irrigation, and sewer pipes. Other asbestos-containing materials include carpet underlays, stove gaskets, hot water boiler insulations, heat-resistant fabrics, wood and gas heaters, and many more.

Asbestos in the Home

In Australia, homes built before the 1980s can still pose some risks of asbestos exposure. You should be careful when performing DIY renovations in such dwellings. Building materials in your home, such as insulation and floor tiles, could contain asbestos.

Professional licensed asbestos removalists are best invited to remove asbestos safely.

Furthermore, asbestos testing is recommended if you have damaged drywall or insulation. Merely having protruding fibres is not a confirmation that a product contains asbestos.

Health Risks of Asbestos Exposure

Generally, you must be repeatedly exposed to asbestos to develop asbestos-related diseases. However, even though it is rare, it is still possible to get sick. Up to 20% of heavily exposed asbestos workers develop a related disease.

This is why you must be careful when working on older buildings. Such persons are at a high risk of asbestos exposure. Besides, you always need to be careful as there is no specified safe level or threshold of exposure.

Asbestos Safety Tips

  • As much as possible, avoid all contact with asbestos materials.
  • Invite only licensed and trained professionals to perform asbestos inspections, testing, or removal.
  • Contact the relevant local or state regulatory agency if you need demolition work.
  • Do not attempt to collect asbestos samples for testing if you’re not trained.
  • If you suspect asbestos exposure, get screened by qualified lung specialists. Avoid using DIY asbestos testing kits if you’re not adequately trained.

Managing Asbestos in the Workplace

Here are some steps for workplace asbestos management and removal.

Identifying asbestos

The first step is identifying asbestos and asbestos-containing materials. Only persons that are qualified to do this should attempt it. You can refer to the qualification criteria specified in How to Manage and Control Asbestos in the Workplace Code of Practice. Likewise, you can refer to Victoria's asbestos website, which contains identifying asbestos information.

Risk assessment

The second step is to do an asbestos risk assessment. Asbestos that is deteriorating or damaged has a higher risk of releasing harmful asbestos fibres.

Risk control

Next, you can take control measures to isolate and eliminate the risk. You also have to implement administrative controls. You can refer to the How to Safely Remove Asbestos Code of Practice guide for asbestos inspections, removal, transport and disposal.

Risk review

This review process is a requirement of work health and safety laws, especially if you have ineffective control measures. For instance, you must update asbestos management plans and registers every five years at a minimum. Persons confirmed to have been exposed to asbestos are supposed to register their details on the National Asbestos Exposure Register (NAER).

Get Help from Licensed Asbestos Removalists

Now that you know more about when asbestos was first used in Australia, you should be even more vigilant about the risks of exposure. It is still advised that you engage a licensed asbestos removalist for all forms of asbestos removal. They can give you reliable asbestos information on the type of asbestos and help with safe removal and disposal.