How can asbestos affect your health?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral made up of tiny, microscopic fibres. When asbestos is disturbed, either in its natural form or in an asbestos-containing product, these fibres can become airborne and be easily inhaled. Asbestos fibres may become trapped in the lungs, potentially causing a number of life-threatening diseases like cancer.

Inhalation is the main way that asbestos enters the body. Being exposed to asbestos fibres increases the risk of developing cancers of the lung, ovary and larynx as well as mesothelioma (cancer of the lining of the lung). These cancers often develop decades after exposure to asbestos.

Mesothelioma is a rare type of fast-growing cancer that is almost always caused by exposure to asbestos. There is currently no cure for this disease. Between 700 and 800 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma in Australia each year, with the average time between diagnosis and death being only 11 months (AIHW, 2019).

As well as cancer, some other asbestos-related diseases include:

  • asbestosis – scar tissue forms inside the lungs and makes breathing difficult
  • pleural plaques – asbestos fibres cause thickened patches of scar tissue on the pleura, or lung lining.

All of these asbestos-related diseases contribute to approximately 4000 deaths in Australia each year (Global Burden of Disease Collaborative Network, 2016).

Due to these health risks, Australia imposed a total ban on the mining, manufacture and use of asbestos on 31 December 2003. However, our past use of asbestos means that asbestos-containing materials still exist in our built environment.

What is the risk to health?

There is no safe level of exposure that can protect you from developing an asbestos-related disease (World Health Organisation).

This is because asbestos is a genotoxic carcinogen and owing to its DNA interaction properties, there is thought to be no safe exposure threshold or dose. Genotoxic carcinogens are regulated under the assumption that they pose a cancer risk for humans, even at very low doses.

Anyone can be at risk of exposure to asbestos fibres, either through contact with naturally occurring asbestos found in some rocks, sediments and soils or through contact with asbestos-containing materials in our built environment.

The people at greatest risk of exposure are those that undertake repairs, maintenance, renovations and other work on older buildings and infrastructure which contain asbestos materials.

Research has shown that smoking significantly increases the risk of lung cancer in people who have been exposed to asbestos.

Simply living or working in a building containing asbestos is not necessarily dangerous, as long as the asbestos is sealed, undamaged, and is not disturbed. Background levels of asbestos (levels that occur naturally) are present in the air.  

What to do if you think you have been exposed to asbestos?

If you believe you have been exposed to asbestos fibres you should take the following steps:

If the suspected exposure took place in the workplace:

  • contact your employer, who should take immediate action to remove the ongoing risk; or your state or territory work health and safety regulator if that does not occur.

If the suspected exposure took place outside the workplace (home or community):

  • contact your local council or environment regulator for advice on how to ensure the asbestos fibres pose no ongoing risk to yourself or to others.

You could also arrange an appointment with your GP to discuss the associated health risks and request advice regarding any health assessments that your GP considers appropriate.

It is also recommended that you register your details on the National Asbestos Exposure Register (NAER).