Asbestos Exposure & Health Risks
Asbestos is still present in many homes and buildings today. This is because of the extensive use of asbestos in building materials, insulating materials and other products in the past. The use of asbestos in some of these materials did not cease until well into 2003.
There have been countless incidents of persons being unwittingly exposed to asbestos carrying out home renovations or being present near homes or other building construction work. It is important to realise that not everyone exposed to asbestos will develop an asbestos disease. Some people exposed, even heavily exposed, will not develop any asbestos related disease. However any exposure should be avoided.
It is also important to note that it can take decades for asbestos disease to develop following exposure to asbestos and it is very rare for any asbestos disease to develop earlier than 10 years after exposure.
Anyone exposed to asbestos should keep some form of record of their asbestos exposure. For those exposed in the workplace an incident report should be completed and then a registration of the exposure can be lodged with the employer’s workers compensation insurer.
If the exposure has occurred in the home, such as from home renovation or from being near home renovations, you should prepare a written record of the exposure and keep it in a safe place. The Society can be contacted for assistance with this.
If the exposure took place a long time ago it is still important to prepare a written record.
A person exposed to asbestos should see their general practitioner to discuss the consequences of asbestos exposure and appropriate medical investigation. If the exposure is only very recent it is unlikely that there would be an identifiable health effect of the asbestos exposure, but it is always important to draw the asbestos exposure to the attention of your general practitioner who can take
If you have been exposed to asbestos and develop respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue or other such symptoms you should see your general practitioner or treating doctor to have these symptoms investigated.
The Society can be contacted regarding any concerns about asbestos exposure. All asbestos exposure should be registered and this can be done by calling the Society on 1800 776 412.
When mined and processed, asbestos is typically separated into very thin fibres. An individual asbestos fibre is 50 to 200 times thinner than a human hair, is invisible to the naked eye and has no smell. Asbestos fibres are extremely durable, and being so small they can easily be inhaled or swallowed. The fibres are barbed like fishhooks, if they lodge in tissue they cannot come out, only bury in further.
If asbestos or asbestos containing material is disturbed it forms a dust that contains asbestos fibres. Asbestos becomes a health risk when asbestos fibres are released into the air and are breathed in.
Breathing in asbestos fibres can cause Asbestos Related Diseases:
- Mesothelioma cancer
- Asbestos related lung cancer
- Asbestos related pleural disease
- Pleural plaques; and more
NOTE: Mesothelioma is regarded as a terminal cancer with no known cure.
The risk of contracting one of these diseases generally increases with the number of fibres inhaled, however, some people have contracted mesothelioma after only a very brief exposure.
If you smoked, then the risk of lung cancer from inhaling asbestos fibres is also greater.
The symptoms of these diseases do not usually appear until 20 to 30 years (it may be less or longer – there is no hard or fast rule), after initial exposure to asbestos dust and fibres.
It is important to note: Not everyone who is exposed to asbestos fibres/dust will develop an asbestos related disease – but being exposed to asbestos really is DICING WITH DEATH – there is no way of knowing if you or a loved one will end up with terminal cancer after being exposed to asbestos dust!
To find out more about asbestos related diseases please go to the Asbestos Diseases section of this website.
- About 125 million people in the world are exposed to asbestos at the workplace.
- According to WHO estimates, more than 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis resulting from occupational exposure.
- One in every three deaths from occupational cancer is estimated to have been caused by asbestos.
- It is estimated that several thousand deaths annually can be attributed to exposure to asbestos in the home.
- All forms of asbestos, including chrysotile (white) asbestos, are carcinogenic to humans.
- There is no evidence of a threshold level of exposure to any type of asbestos.
- Exposure to asbestos can cause mesothelioma and cancer of the lung, larynx and ovary, asbestosis (fibrosis of the lungs), pleural plaques, thickening and effusions.
- Exposure to asbestos is difficult to control.
- The most effective way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop the use of all types of asbestos.
- WHO encourages the use of substitutes that are safe for health
- WHO is working to eliminate asbestos-related disease
The World Health Organisation, in collaboration with the International Labour Organisation and with other intergovernmental organisations and civil society, works with countries towards elimination of asbestos-related diseases in the following strategic directions:
- By recognising that the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop the use of all types of asbestos;
- By providing information about solutions for replacing asbestos with safer substitutes and developing economic and technological mechanisms to stimulate its replacement;
- By taking measures to prevent exposure to asbestos in place and during asbestos removal (abatement); and
- By improving early diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation services for asbestos-related diseases;
WHO Factsheet on asbestos: elimination of asbestos-related diseases:
Note: It is now thought the number of deaths caused by asbestos related disease per year is far greater than 107,000 people.
Asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma cancer:
- There is no known cure for mesothelioma.
- More than one person dies every 12 hours in Australia from mesothelioma – this is approximately the same rate as for Ovarian Cancer and Motor Neurone Disease (MND)
- Disturbingly, for every person who dies of mesothelioma, another is diagnosed!
- There is no known safe level of exposure to asbestos fibres/dust!
- Very low levels of exposure to asbestos fibres/dust have been attributed to causing mesothelioma.
- From exposure to asbestos fibres/dust to being diagnosed can take from under 20 years to over 60 years.
- You do not have to have worked with asbestos to contract mesothelioma – many women, daughters and sons have been diagnosed after being exposed when workers brought asbestos fibres/dust home on their clothes, or when they were present/helped during a renovation or building a cubby house many years before.
Breathing in asbestos dust can be deadly and may kill you! There is no known safe level of exposure to asbestos fibre/dust!
- Asbestos related lung cancer is thought to be widely under diagnosed and reported (largely due to the extreme difficulty in determining asbestos was the cause). But what is known, a person who smokes cigarettes and who is, or was exposed to asbestos has a vastly higher chance of being diagnosed with lung cancer than if those who smoked and and were never exposed to asbestos.
- Exact figures are not known on how many people in Australia die from causes associated with asbestos related diseases (ARD) each year. Conservative estimates range from 1500 to 2500 deaths per year. To put it in perspective – in 2017, 2 times as many Australians may have died
from an ARD, than as a result of road accidents.
- There are over 3000 known products that contain asbestos.
- Many homes, commercial and government buildings built or renovated prior to 2004 will contain equipment, products and materials that comprise asbestos.
- A large percentage of homes and buildings in Australia, built or renovated before 1990, are likely to include asbestos containing building materials.
- Asbestos was widely used in the Australian construction industry from the 1940s up until the late 1980s when its use in building materials was banned. Its awful legacy continues to pose a problem during maintenance, renovation and demolition.
- Home renovating is now thought to be the biggest cause of exposure to asbestos fibre/dust in Australia.Home renovating is now thought to be the biggest cause of exposure to asbestos fibre/dust in Australia.
- Lack of awareness and ‘ignorance’ about the dangers of asbestos by trades persons and DIY renovators is placing many people at risk of exposure to asbestos fibres/dust, and to the very real possibility of being diagnosed with mesothelioma many years down the track.
Think about this: In Australia more than two people per day, everyday of the year, are diagnosed (given a death sentence) with mesothelioma, and more than 2 people a day die from mesothelioma – all because at some time in their lives many years ago they were exposed to asbestos fibres/dust!