Asbestos: the facts

Asbestos is a generic term for a number of fibrous silicate minerals.

There are two major kinds of asbestos:

  • Serpentine asbestos contains chrysotile, commonly known as white asbestos.
  • Amphibole asbestos contains amosite (brown asbestos), crocidolite (blue asbestos), or other less common types such as tremolite, actinolite, and anthophyllite.

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From the late nineteenth century, both types of asbestos became popular in manufacturing and building. Asbestos was popular because it had excellent sound absorption and tensile strength, was resistant to fire, heat, electrical and chemical damage, and was very affordable.

Although health concerns about asbestos were raised very early, it wasn’t until 1991 that use of asbestos in building was banned outright in Australia.

Live in Sydney? Find out more about the widespread use of asbestos in Sydney homes.

Asbestos fibres

Asbestos fibres are made up of many very fine fibrils that, when further processed or disturbed, can become airborne and therefore more hazardous.

Invisible to the naked eye, the finest fibres are the most dangerous. They can potentially penetrate the deepest part of the lungs.

Chrysotile fibres are curly and are less likely to become airborne than straight amphibole fibres.

The risks

There is a risk that breathing in asbestos fibres may cause asbestosis, lung cancer, or mesothelioma. A link has also been found between asbestos and gastrointestinal or laryngeal cancer.

Asbestos-related diseases often have a long delay or lag period – usually 20 to 40 years between your initial exposure and the onset of symptoms. Asbestos disease can appear or progress even after you are no longer exposed.


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