What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a group of minerals that are mined then processed. It is composed of very fine crystals that can be inhaled and penetrate the smallest of airways. They irritate lung tissue and cannot be cleared by the lungs, causing inflammation, scarring and serious diseases, which can take decades to develop.
Asbestos was widely used in buildings as insulation and fireproofing, and in textiles. Two out of three houses built between the 1940s and 1980s contain asbestos. Concerns about its toxicity were raised in Australia in the 1970s. Its use was phased out in the 1980s and it was banned in 2003. In Australia, homes built after 1990 are unlikely to contain asbestos.
Who is at risk?
Most people who develop asbestos-related diseases have worked in jobs where they frequently breathed in large amounts of asbestos fibres. You may also be at risk of developing an asbestos-related illness if you lived with someone who worked with asbestos, played on piles of discarded asbestos as a child, or lived in an area where asbestos was mined.
What illnesses are caused by asbestos?
Mesothelioma is a rare cancer of the covering of the lung (the pleura). The disease can take 20 to 40 years to develop, but once it begins it spreads rapidly. It is usually fatal within a year.
Asbestosis is a chronic irritation of the airways caused by asbestos fibres. The lungs become stiff and unable to expand. This causes difficulty breathing, coughing and permanent lung damage. The disease gradually worsens over years, even when exposure to asbestos is stopped.
Lung cancer and other cancers
Lung cancer can develop in people who have breathed in asbestos fibres. This is more common in people who have smoked.
Asbestos exposure also increases the risk of cancer of the larynx (the voicebox), ovaries and testes.
Pleural disease is inflammation of the lining of the lung (the pleura). The disease causes stiffening of the lung and difficulty breathing.
What to do?
If you think you have been in contact with asbestos, see your doctor.
Fibrocement cladding can be tested to see if it contains asbestos. Contact the National Association of Testing Authorities.
Visit Lung Foundation Australia's website to learn what you can do to protect your lungs if you’re working with, or are exposed to, asbestos dust.
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Last reviewed: August 2020