Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was once commonly mined in Australia, although large amounts were also imported. Australia was one of the highest users in the world of asbestos per capita.
Prior to the mid-1980s, it had an incredibly wide variety of uses in Australia. Asbestos was widely used in industry, primarily in insulation and as a fire retardant. It was also used extensively in building materials – both in homes and factories – as well as in brake linings and other friction parts such as gaskets.
There are two kinds of asbestos products: friable and non-friable. Friable products contain loose asbestos fibres and usually give off dust to the touch. Non-friable products contain asbestos bonded with other materials, like cement – they only give off asbestos dust when they are cut, drilled, weathered or otherwise disturbed.
This dust is dangerous because it contains microscopic asbestos fibres which are easily inhaled. While the body naturally removes most of these fibres, some may become trapped deep in the lungs and can lead to the development of an asbestos-related disease decades later. Although signs of illness may begin within 7-10 years from exposure, generally asbestos related diseases occur around 30-50 years after initial exposure. For example, most current cases of mesothelioma, a dangerous form of cancer caused by asbestos, are related to exposure to asbestos during the 1960s -1980s.
Dangers of asbestos exposure
Inhalation of asbestos dust is extremely dangerous and poses a serious risk to health. In recent decades, thousands of people in Australia have been diagnosed with one or more serious diseases related to asbestos exposure.
Asbestos can cause both cancers, and non-malignant diseases. The most common non-malignant diseases are asbestosis and asbestos related pleural disease..
How much asbestos exposure is harmful?
There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos. However, not everyone who is exposed to asbestos fibres will develop an asbestos related disease. Even short-term exposure can result in the development of an illness. Heavy and/or prolonged exposure greatly increases the risk of developing one or more asbestos related diseases.
Cancer and asbestos exposure diseases
Exposure to asbestos can result in the development of a range of illnesses and medical complications. There is no such thing as ‘asbestos cancer’, although exposure to asbestos can be linked to the development of certain types of cancers. The four most common illnesses related to asbestos exposure are:
Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that develops in the tissue that lines that the internal organs, usually the lungs. Asbestos causes this cancer because when asbestos fibres are inhaled, they can become lodged within the lining of the lungs. Overtime, the inflammation and scaring which develop around the deposited fibres turn into malignant (cancerous) cells. The only known cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos.
Any exposure to asbestos dust creates a risk of developing mesothelioma. The risk increases as the amount of exposure increases. For people with small exposures, the risk is small.
Prolonged or significant asbestos exposure can cause lung cancer.
The risk of developing asbestos induced lung cancer is greater for those who also have a history of smoking. Exposure to asbestos and smoking have a multiply the risk of developing lung cancer, making it substantially more likely than if the person was just a smoker, or just exposed to asbestos. Like other asbestos related diseases, lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure has a long latency period with signs of illness potentially developing decades after exposure.
Unlike mesothelioma, asbestos induced lung cancer requires a substantial period of exposure to asbestos. Asbestos exposure treatment options depend on the type of disease developed. Asbestos related diseases, like mesothelioma and asbestosis, are extremely serious and are generally terminal diagnoses.
Asbestos has also been implicated in a number of other types of cancer including cancers of the larynx, ovary, stomach, pharynx, kidney and colorectum. However, the evidence in relation to these cancers is complex and remains in some dispute.
There is no cure for asbestos exposure itself.
If you suspect you may have been exposed to asbestos at some point in the past there are no preventative actions you can take to avoid developing an asbestos related disease – the best course of action is to receive regular medical checks in order to discover any developments as early as possible which can help to improve the diagnosis and treatment options.
All asbestos diseases are treated by reference to the disease. However, there is limited capacity to cure any asbestos diseases.
Is there an asbestos risk today?
Dangers from asbestos remain. Asbestos products, especially asbestos bonded cement or fibro, were widely used in building and construction – it is estimated that around one-third of homes built in Australia between the 1940s and 1980s contain asbestos. Many of these structures are still standing. Bonded asbestos products, like fibro, are not a risk to safety if they remain intact. However, when these products are cut, drilled, weathered or otherwise disturbed they release dust which contains asbestos fibres.
There are now strict protocols in place for the removal of asbestos if it is uncovered in buildings, and the asbestos exposure risk is largely limited to circumstances where people accidentally disturb asbestos, for example when renovating, or do not appreciate the dangers of asbestos exposure and do not take adequate precautions when removing asbestos.
The effects of asbestos were well known by manufacturers, like James Hardie, Wunderlich, Bells Asbestos and other, for many years before they ceased to make and sell asbestos products.
If you develop an asbestos related disease you will generally have a right to bring a claim at common law to receive compensation. Depending on how your exposure to asbestos occurred this claim may be against your former employer (or their workers’ compensation insurer if the company no longer exists) or against the manufacturer of the asbestos product. However, those who develop pleural plaques only will not have a claim unless they can show the plaques are causing pain, a physical disability or a recognised psychological injury.
If you are in NSW and were exposed to asbestos during the course of your employment, you may also have a right to receive statutory compensation from the Dust Diseases Authority which entitles you to an ongoing pension and cover of your medical expenses.