Asbestos was commonly used as a building material in Australia, mainly between the 1940s and the 1980s. It is now known to cause several serious illnesses which usually appear many years after exposure.
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.
Asbestos was widely used in building 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. In Australia homes built after 1990 are unlikely to contain asbestos and it was banned completely in 2003.
Who is at risk?
If you have worked with asbestos, or lived with someone who worked with asbestos, or played on piles of discarded asbestos as a child, or lived in an area where asbestos was mined, there is a chance you could develop an asbestos-related illness.
Illnesses caused by asbestos
Mesothelioma is a 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. The disease gradually worsens over years, even when exposure to asbestos is stopped.
Lung cancer can develop in people who have breathed in asbestos fibres. This is more common in people who have smoked.
Pleural disease is inflammation of the lining of the lung (the pleura). The disease causes stiffening of the lung and difficulty breathing.
Asbestos exposure also increases the risk of cancer of the larynx (the voicebox), ovaries and testes.
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 (NATA).
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Last reviewed: August 2018