When and why is asbestos dangerous?

view of greenlight inspectors tablet
view of greenlight inspectors tablet

Once a commonly used material in the building and construction industry, asbestos is now better known as a risk to our health and safety.

But do you know why asbestos is such a danger to our health?  And if it is such a dangerous material, why was it used so much?

Today, we’re going to tell you about the health risks associated with asbestos, as well as steps you can take to reduce your chance of exposure to asbestos.

But first, let’s talk about what asbestos is.

What is asbestos and why was it used in building?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral compound that is found in rock formations. Made up of many flexible and very small silicate fibres, asbestos was mined all over the world, including in Australia.

There are six different types of asbestos, of which you can learn more about here. (link to asbestos page).

The use of asbestos in the building and construction industry was at its peak between the late 1940s and the early 1980s.  It was commonly used because it was a highly versatile material that was very lightweight, insulative, and resistant to heat and corrosion. These properties, as well as its natural abundance making it very affordable, made it a desirable product in the building industry.

Asbestos fibres were used in many different ways, sometimes by themselves, where they would be used as insulation in walls and roof cavities, or mixed with other materials, like adhesives, to create other building materials, such as cement sheeting.

Building materials made with asbestos are known as asbestos containing materials (ACMs). These materials are classified as either friable or non-friable (bonded).

So, is there asbestos in my home?

Australia had a high usage of asbestos up until the late 1980s, when the health risks associated with exposure to asbestos became more well known.  Around this time, building products that were made using alternative materials to asbestos were introduced into the building and construction industry and the use of ACMs slowed.

While their usage decreased, ACMs were still being used up until the total ban on the use of asbestos in any format was in place at the end of 2003.

While not every home in Australia was made using asbestos containing materials, if your home was built between the late 1940s and the early 1980s, there is a high chance that asbestos may be present.  From the late 1980s up until 2003, the chances of asbestos containing building materials being used in the construction of your home does decrease, however, there is still a possibility that they may have been used.

Unless you’re a highly trained professional, it can be hard to identify asbestos just by sight, so knowing when your home was built can be a guide as to whether asbestos might be present in your home.  However, to be certain as to whether asbestos is present in your home, the best way is to engage with a residential asbestos testing service.  

Do I need to remove asbestos in my home?

If your home has asbestos in it, while it’s important to avoid any exposure to asbestos fibres, it doesn’t necessarily pose a danger to you.

When asbestos is non-friable and in good condition, where it is sealed, undisturbed and not damaged in any way, it may not need to be removed from your home.   However, if asbestos containing materials are identified in your home, even if they are in good condition and do not require removal, it’s important to be aware of their presence and ensure that you are aware of their condition and any deterioration that may occur.

If your home is undergoing renovations or maintenance, if asbestos materials are present, it’s important that you, and/or anyone who may be performing any of these works, are aware of the location of these asbestos materials to ensure that any necessary safety precautions are undertaken, and disturbance of the asbestos materials is avoided.

When a home contains friable asbestos, this poses a significant risk to your health and the health of those who may be present at your home.  This is because friable asbestos is very easily disturbed.

When is asbestos dangerous?

When asbestos is disturbed, harmful asbestos fibres can become airborne.  And due to their lightweight nature and very small size, they can travel great distances and are also difficult to see with the naked eye.  Even the lightest touch can trigger these fibres to release.

When asbestos is friable, it means that it can be easily crumbled, usually with only a little pressure from the hand.  This can release asbestos fibres in the air.  Non-friable asbestos materials can become friable through deterioration and degradation over time.  They can also become friable when they are broken, damaged or disturbed. This most commonly occurs when power tools are used on them, like drilling, grinding, cutting, and sanding. This disturbance can release the asbestos fibres and make them airborne.

Airborne asbestos fibres can easily enter the body through breathing and swallowing. As they are usually not visible, you may not even be aware that you are ingesting them. When asbestos fibres are ingested, they can make their way deep into the lungs, and become trapped in the body.  When asbestos fibres become trapped in the body, they can cause serious health issues.

Health risks of asbestos exposure

When asbestos fibres become lodged in lung and body tissue, they are essentially trapped and are unable to be broken down or removed.  Asbestos is a carcinogenic material and can cause incurable illnesses.

The illnesses that are caused by asbestos are:

  • Asbestosis
  • Lung Cancer
  • Mesothelioma.


Asbestosis is a chronic respiratory disease that is non-cancerous. When asbestos fibres are inhaled into the lungs, they can cause inflammation of the lung tissue, which can cause scarring.

This scarring makes it harder for the lungs to expand and fill with air, which leads to symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest tightness, and a dry crackling sound in the lungs while inhaling. 

As the illness advances, it can lead to hypertension and even cardiac failure as the formation of scar tissue may also constrict arteries and make it harder to pump blood out of the heart to the rest of the body.

The likelihood of developing asbestosis is higher for those who have experienced high levels of asbestos exposures.  Those who worked in the mining, manufacturing, installation and removal of asbestos and asbestos containing products, are at the greatest risk of developing asbestosis.

Asbestosis has an exceptionally long latency period, with symptoms taking between 20-30 years to present.

Unfortunately, there is no effective treatment for asbestosis.

Lung Cancer

Asbestos fibres that are lodged in the lung tissue can cause genetic and cellular damage to the lung cells, turning them cancerous.

Lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure has a long latency period, developing anywhere between 15 to 35 years after the initial asbestos exposure. Many instances of lung cancer being diagnosed now and in recent years have a likelihood of being linked to occupational asbestos exposure that may have occurred decades ago, when asbestos products were more commonly used.

Symptoms of lung cancer include persistent coughing, shortness of breath, chest pains and discomfort, anaemia, and hoarseness. 

People who were directly involved in the mining and manufacturing of asbestos and asbestos products, have a significantly higher risk of developing this kind of lung cancer than the general population. This risk increases significantly if the person smokes as smoking decreases the lung’s ability to remove asbestos fibres.


Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive form of cancer that can occur in the thin layer of tissue that lines the body’s organs, predominantly the lining of the heart, abdomen, and lungs.

Mesothelioma is linked to asbestos exposure, where asbestos fibres become lodged in the body tissue, and can cause damage to the mesothelial cells which causes inflammation and over time, tumours.

Those who handled or were exposed to asbestos for prolonged periods of time are at a higher risk of developing Mesothelioma.

Like asbestos related lung cancer, Mesothelioma has a long latency period, and can take anywhere from 20-50 years after the asbestos exposure to develop. However, as it is quite an aggressive form of cancer, the prognosis is often dire, with life expectancy around 1-2 years after diagnosis.

How much asbestos exposure is ok?

To put it simply, there is no level of exposure to asbestos fibres that is considered safe.

While the likelihood of developing an asbestos related illness from short term light exposure to asbestos is low, it is best to take all precautions possible to avoid any chance of inhaling asbestos fibres.

How you can reduce your risk to asbestos exposure

If you’re concerned about the possible presence of asbestos in your home or you want to avoid any potential accidental exposure, you can get a full understanding of the asbestos situation in your home, property, or building, with an asbestos inspection.

At Greenlight, we offer an asbestos inspection service for residential homes and commercial properties. A tertiary qualified licensed asbestos assessor will thoroughly inspect your home to help identify not only the location of any asbestos that may be present, but the condition of this asbestos.

As part of the inspection, samples will be taken (with the permission of the owner), that will be assessed in a NATA accredited laboratory. You will also receive a comprehensive report within 5 business days.  This report will identify any/all asbestos materials present, their location, and risk associated with them. Included in this report is information pertaining to areas of the home where asbestos materials are not present, so you can be certain what is safe and what is not.

This service can be used for a variety of purposes, including assessing the general safety of your home; as a pre-purchase inspection, where you can understand the safety of a house before you buy it; and a pre-renovation assessment, which may be more intrusive to identify any possible risks in the areas of the home that are being renovated.

Our asbestos services are available for homes and properties in Melbourne and Victoria. If you are looking for an independent asbestos inspection, or any other asbestos related services, get in touch with Greenlight today.  

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