Asbestos fibres are strong, heat resistant and have insulating properties. Clumps of mined asbestos can be broken down into loose fibres or fibre bundles, and can be mixed with other materials, such as cement, to produce a variety of building products. Up to 90% of the asbestos produced in or imported into Australia was used for the manufacture of building products, especially asbestos cement materials.
Asbestos fibres can be found in the air from the breakdown of natural asbestos deposits and manufactured asbestos products. Once airborne, small fibres may remain suspended in the air for some time and can be carried long distances by wind before settling down. Larger fibres and particles tend to settle more quickly. Asbestos fibres do not dissolve in water or move through soil. They are generally not broken down to other compounds and remain virtually unchanged over long periods.
Asbestos-containing building products are classified as either 'friable' (soft, crumbly) or 'bonded' (solid, rigid, non-friable).
Friable asbestos products are generally quite soft and loose and can be crumbled into fine material or dust with very light pressure, such as crushing with your hand. Such products usually contain high levels of asbestos (up to 100% in some instances), which is loosely held in the product so that the asbestos fibres are easily released into the air.
Bonded asbestos products are made from a bonding compound (such as cement) mixed with a small proportion (usually less than 15%) of asbestos. Bonded asbestos products are solid, rigid and non-friable. The asbestos fibres are tightly bound in the product and are not normally released into the air. Common names for such products are 'fibro', 'asbestos cement' and 'AC sheeting'. In this guide we refer to bonded asbestos products as 'asbestos cement materials' (or 'asbestos cement sheeting'). (Source: enHealth)
When asbestos fibres are breathed in, they may remain deep within the lungs. They can lodge in lung tissue and cause inflammation, scarring and some more serious asbestos-related diseases, which usually take many years, if not decades, to develop.
The four major asbestos-related diseases are shown opposite in increasing order of severity. A person may show signs of more than one of these diseases.
- Pleural plaques
- Lung cancer
- Mesothelioma (Source: enHealth)
Safe Management of Asbestos
It is not always possible to detect asbestos just by looking at it. The best way to identify asbestos is by having a licensed asbestos removalist inspect it. If unsure whether a material contains asbestos, treat it as though it does.
Before renovating or doing maintenance work on your home, find out if it contains asbestos and know what to do to remove and dispose of it safely. If more than 10 square metres of bonded asbestos needs to be removed, you must engage a bonded asbestos removalist who is licensed by SafeWork NSW.
Most building or demolition work requires some form of approval. Before erecting or demolishing a building, or making any alterations, find out from the local council if a development consent or complying development certificate is required.
Before any asbestos is removed, advise your neighbours of the time and date of removal, and the name of the licensed removalist.
Asbestos is classified as a hazardous material. There are strict guidelines about how it should be packaged and transported, and where it can be disposed.
All asbestos must be specially wrapped, labelled and disposed of, as soon as possible, at a facility that can lawfully receive asbestos waste.
SafeWork NSW Licensing Requirements for Asbestos Removal
The licensing requirements for removal of asbestos are shown on SafeWork NSW's website. SafeWork NSW also ensures that specialist contractors are correctly licensed.
Council's role and responsibilities are where SafeWork NSW does not have jurisdiction over works being carried out. Council has a role to protect personal and public safety. This includes but is not restricted to:
- private residential properties when it is not a workplace
- customer requests concerning the condition of asbestos products used at residential premises
Dealing with Dumped Asbestos
If you would like to report an incident relating to asbestos please call Customer Service on 1300 581 299.
Council Workplace Management
As a responsible employer Council has an Asbestos Register and an Asbestos Management Plan for each building workplace under its care and control.
Council actively seeks to have asbestos identified. In most cases a small warning label will be placed at the entrance to the building and on the item containing asbestos when it has been identified as containing asbestos. This is to ensure tradespeople and workers are adequately warned and can take appropriate care when undertaking repairs to Council buildings. Council has developed an online access point to its Asbestos Register to enable contractors and subcontractors undertaking works on Council assets to access Asbestos Management Plans and information about asbestos contained in Council's buildings.
There are a number of websites available providing valuable information about asbestos.
The asbestos awareness website has been developed through the Asbestos Education Committee and focuses primarily on home renovations and home maintenance.
Other websites with asbestos related information include;
- Asbestos Diseases Foundation
- Asbestos Diseases Research Institute
- SafeWork NSW (or call 13 10 50)
- Department of Premier and Cabinet, Environment Protection Authority
- Local Government NSW
- Workers Compensation Dust Diseases Board
- NSW Ministry of Health