About Asbestos in Australia
Learn about the use, history and health dangers
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a group of fibrous minerals with long and thin fibers. Its heat resistant and inextinguishable properties made it suitable material for insulation and other industrial products.
Types of Asbestos
The two kinds of asbestos are serpentine variety (asbestos with curly fibers like chrysotile) and amphibole variety (asbestos with straight and needle-like fibers such as: amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, actinolite, and anthophyllite). Chrysolite is the only asbestos type mined widely and large scale.
Health Dangers of Asbestos
Asbestos is a fiber that was once used in construction as insulation and fireproofing. Asbestos fibers are small and toxic, easily entering the body through the lungs and causing a number of health problems. Exposure to asbestos can cause a variety of diseases, including lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a cancer that affects the meosthelium or protective lining that covers the body’s internal organs, most notably the lining of the lungs and chest, known as the pleura. While mesothelioma can be caused by other factors, the majority of cases are linked to asbestos exposure.
History Of Asbestos in Australia
Asbestos-related mesothelioma first gained attention in 1929 when the first lawsuit against asbestos manufacturers was filed. Both sides settled and agreed to avoid pursuing similar cases in the future, and asbestos harmful effects yet again dropped off the radar.
Origin of mesothelioma
In 1960, however, asbestos and mesothelioma were in the news again. In a paper published by Wagner et al, asbestos was declared as the official cause of mesothelioma. The paper cited more than 30 cases of mesothelioma in people who were either working in asbestos mines or spent a good deal of time in proximity to asbestos. Two years later, an Australian asbestos worker was diagnosed with the first case of malignant mesothelioma. He worked in the asbestos mines in Wittenoom, Australia for just two years before developing the disease.
Wittenoom would eventually become a mesothelioma nightmare. A mining town that revolved around the asbestos mills, the mines asbestos waste had an affect on many who lived there, whether or not they worked in the mines. Toxic levels of the mines asbestos were found on playgrounds, and cases of mesothelioma began to crop up in mine workers and non-mine workers alike. Mining in Wittenoom lasted from 1943 to 1966 despite the existence of proof that asbestos caused mesothelioma and other serious medical conditions.
The mines were owned and operated by CSR Limited, a company that produced aluminum and construction materials including asbestos insulation. The company didn’t take proper safety precautions to control the exposure of individuals to asbestos from the mines.
In fact, during the period that CSR Limited Wittenoom mines were in operation, thousands of mine workers, their families, and visitors were exposed to lethal amounts of asbestos. There were regulations in place at the time as to how to control asbestos exposure for mine operators; CSR Limited simply didn’t follow them.
The Western Australia Health Department issued several warnings to CSR, but they failed to make any changes to protect the miners and townspeople, even after many cases of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases began to spring up.
In the late 1970’s the Western Australian government began shutting down the town of Wittenoom because it was no longer safe to live there. Asbestos levels were far too toxic, and, eventually, at least a third of those exposed to asbestos in Wittenoom would be diagnosed with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.
In 1979, suits were brought against CSR Limited, and they were found to have shown conscious negligence and disregard for the safety of the mine workers and the town. Even now, new cases of mesothelioma related to the Wittenoom tragedy are being diagnosed, costing CSR Limited millions of dollars in settlements.
Asbestos Removal Procedures
Asbestos removal is a very sensitive undertaking, which requires high precautionary standards. The preparation phase is particularly important in avoiding adverse health effects on workers and house occupants.
Here is a simple guideline that a qualified specialist would follow in preparation for removal of friable products (asbestos containing material in powder form), based on information from the Australian Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations:
Preparation For Removal Project
Before you attempt to do anything, you must follow these preparatory procedures:
You should first obtain an asbestos removal control plan (ARCP), as well as the work instructions. To ensure the highest standards of safety and compliance of the project, an on-site assessment must be carried out. Relevant data can also be sourced from an existing asbestos register.
It’s necessary that calculations are made of the required quantity of materials, based on the quality requirements, specifications and plans.
Applicable environmental requirements should be identified so that the project can comply with all regulatory obligations.
The health of workers involved in the project must be preserved. Therefore, you should apply all processes required in meeting health surveillance requirements. This also involves air monitoring. Authorization can then be obtained (based on company and legislative requirements) after finishing the preparation phase. All workers involved in the project should be supplied with personal protective equipment (PPE) that is consistent with the job. Such equipment should be checked for faults beforehand.
Preparation Of Removal Area And Site
Once the project has been authorized, following the initial preparation phase, a second preparation of the actual site is necessary. This involves the following activities:
The particular materials containing asbestos should be identified and the asbestos register checked. Having identified the target materials, you can then implement signage and barricade procedures. This is necessary in delineating work areas within the site; hence preventing unwarranted access by unqualified persons.
You should also set up the decontamination unit before starting the project. You also need to test the decontamination procedures, just to be sure of their effectiveness, while ruling out chances of error. Similarly, all equipment and materials that will be used in removal of asbestos containing material (ACM) should be checked prior to the operation. It’s critically important that adjacent utilities are assessed beforehand. Such utilities as power lines and water pipes may need deactivation, containment or diversion. Doing this will avert avoidable risks.
The code of practice and applicable legislation would also require you to notify all occupants in the building, neighbors and any other person who might be affected by the operation.
Enclosing The Removal Site
This is the last step involved in preparation for the removal project. Various activities involved include:
You should identify the most appropriate enclosure type and removal process, depending on how extensive the removal project is. Since friable products are potentially more harmful than non-friable products (ACM in solid form), stricter enclosure procedures would be required. Once a particular enclosure type is selected, you must ensure that negative air pressure is maintained within it, in compliance with legislative requirements. It should also be inspected and smoke tested to make sure that it’s completely air-tight.
After completing all these preparatory procedure, a licensed assessor should be notified of the proposed asbestos removal project.
Asbestos is still widely used in many products today, despite its toxicity. Attempts to legislate a ban on asbestos, so far, has been overturned by the courts. The EPA has resources available to provide you with information about asbestos, asbestos-related products, and how to control your asbestos exposure.