Historically, it has been mined and used by many industries worldwide.
Asbestos was once considered to be a very useful mineral because it is flexible, strong, affordable and can insulate from heat and electricity. Because of this, it was commonly used in the construction of homes and buildings.
Exposure to asbestos fibres can cause life-threatening illnesses, so use of asbestos has been greatly reduced and it is now banned in 61 countries.
There are six types of asbestos mineral fibres:
Chrysotile (white asbestos)
Amosite (brown or grey asbestos)
Crocidolite (blue asbestos)
Asbestos use in Australia
Up until the mid-1980s, Australia had one of the highest rates of asbestos use per person in the world.
Asbestos was mined in Australia until 1984, and 1.5 million tonnes of asbestos was imported between 1930 and 1983.
On the 31st December 2003 asbestos was banned in Australia.
Asbestos Containing Materials (ACMs)
Asbestos-containing materials can be dangerous to health if they are not properly maintained or removed carefully. There are two types of asbestos-containing materials:
A product that contains asbestos fibres that have been mixed with other materials, such as cement. Non-friable asbestos is commonly found in buildings in Australia. If non-friable asbestos is damaged or broken, it may release asbestos fibres into the air.
A material that contains asbestos that can be easily crumbled or reduced to powder, such as insulation. This type of asbestos is more likely to become airborne.
Asbestos in the home
Approximately one third of all homes in Australia contain asbestos products. If your house was built before 1990, it is likely that it would have some asbestos-containing materials. Asbestos or asbestos-containing materials could be found in the following areas:
Asbestos used as an embalming substance for Pharaohs and in cooking pots.
Roman historian Pliny notes that slaves weaving asbestos cloth sicken and die. Describes the use of respirators made from animal bladders.
Major asbestos mines open in Canada and South Africa, America, Italy and Russia.
British factory safety inspectors express concern about the ‘evil effects’ of asbestos dust.
British Royal Commission confirms first cases of asbestos deaths in factories, recommends better ventilation and other safety measures.
Royal Commission into working conditions in gold mines in Australia reveals widespread lung disease. Ventilation laws introduced.
Prudential Insurance Company in the US produces an actuarial study showing premature death in the asbestos industry. Other companies begin increasing premiums and refusing insurance.
First successful claim for compensation by a sick asbestos worker in Massachusetts Industrial Accidents Board. Over the following three years several hundred further claims filed.
Asbestosis given its name.
John Manville Corporation, the world’s largest asbestos mine/manufacturer served with 11 writs by asbestos victims. The claims settled out of court with secrecy order. Metropolitan Life Insurance company in the United States finds that half the men working at John Manville plants for more than three years develop lung disease.
British Home Office Survey finds widespread asbestos disease in UK factories.
Inspector of Factories and Shops in Western Australia reports on the effect of asbestos dust on the lungs of workers in the James Hardie factory in Perth.
Lang Hancock ‘discovers’ the Wittenoom blue asbestos (crocidolite) deposits and later begins pick and shovel mining.
United States adopted ‘safe’ dust limit of 176 particles of asbestos per cubic centimetre in the workplace. German researchers identify six cancer deaths among asbestos textile works. Later animal studies confirm asbestos dust kills mice.
Western Australian Commissioner of Public Health and Chief Inspector of Factories find respiratory disorders among James Hardie workers
Lang Hancock begins mining at Wittenoom. Plant opens in 1943 and CSR takes over in 1948.
Samac Laboratory in New York confirms the link between asbestos and cancer. John Manville suppresses the report. A report on an asbestos mill at Zeehan in Tasmania (owned and operated by a CSR subsidiary) says that asbestos dust is a health hazard and discusses methods of eliminating it.
First warning of asbestos dust in Wittenoom – the Western Australian Assistant State Mining Engineer reports on the danger of dust being generated. Mines Inspector Adams reports on the ‘dust menace’ at Wittenoom and discusses the need to reduce dust levels.
Known asbestos death toll reaches 235 in Britain, 16 in France and 3 in Italy. Wittenoom mine manager writes to head office about the first known asbestosis case – a man called Dignam. Mines Department Inspector Adams describes dust conditions and Wittenoom as ‘terrific’.
Dr Eric Saint tells Wittenoom mine management that asbestos is extremely dangerous and that men exposed would contract chest disease inside six months. He writes to the Public Health Department in Perth that mine will produce the greatest crop of asbestosis the world has ever seen. Over the following three years, dust levels at the mine and mill are regularly monitored at six to eight times ‘safe levels’. Further warnings are given to mine management. No improvement in conditions is noted.
Western Australian Commissioner of Public Health reports to his Minister that ‘Asbestos dust, if inhaled, constitutes a very grave risk and is, if anything, worse than silicosis’. State Mining Engineer reports insufficient attention to safety regulations and ventilation at Wittenoom.
Western Australia adopts the ‘safe’ dust limit of 176 particles per cubic centimetre. Wittenoom readings continually off the scale at 1000 particles. Mines and Health Department take no action apart from issuing further warnings.
Dr Richard Doll in the UK produces the most comprehensive survey to date linking asbestos with lung disease.
Western Australian Health Department discovers six cases of lung damage among Wittenoom workers.
Wagner paper published a ‘new’ disease, mesothelioma (fatal cancer of the lining of the lungs) discovered among people exposed to asbestos in South Africa.
Britain cuts maximum exposure level of asbestos in the workplace from 176 to 5 particles per cubic centimetre. First case of mesothelioma detected among ex-Wittenoom workers. The man dies.
More than 100 cases of lung disease among Wittenoom workers and ex-workers – more than for all other mines in Western Australia.
Local council warned that tonnes of asbestos tailings being spread around Wittenoom could even threaten tourists.
G Major of the Commonwealth Health Department is highly critical of dust at the mine and mill. CSR closes the mine two weeks later.
D Jansen & Co P/L commences installing ‘asbestosfluff’ into roof spaces in many homes in Canberra. Homeowners pay less than $100 to have loose-fill friable asbestos material pumped into their roof space as insulation. This goes on to become known as Mr Fluffy.
Building unions at workplaces across Australia commence industrial action to ban the use of asbestos.
Wittenoom toll reaches 175. 27 men now known to have died.
First public warning of the dangers of blue asbestos. Bulletin magazine cover story, ‘Is This Killer in Your Home?’
Cornelius Maas becomes the first mesothelioma victim to sue the CSR subsidiary that ran the mine. He dies before the case gets to court.
D. Jansen/Mr Fluffy ceases operation in Canberra and regional New South Wales.
First successful common law claim for compensation as a result of asbestos-related disease (in Victoria).
First victories in court for Wittenoom mesothelioma victims. Judges rule CSR acted with ‘continuing, conscious and contumelious’ disregard for its workers safety.
Wittenoom toll tops 500. National Health and Medical Research Council prediction the final toll will be 2,000.
The Commonwealth and ACT Governments undertake the first clean-up of ‘Mr Fluffy’ visible and accessible loose fill asbestos insulation from affected homes in the ACT.
Australian Government enacts the National Environmental Protection Council Act 1994 allowing for National Environmental Protection Measures (NEPM) to be made.
The Asbestos Disease Foundation of Australia plays a major role in winning changes to New South Wales laws regarding dust diseases which benefited members. The laws were a first for Australia.
The National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) full public report on chrysotile asbestos was published in February
Unions continue their efforts to make James Hardie accountable for its failure to acknowledge the damage to workers’ health and obligations to compensate workers affected by asbestos-related disease. James Hardie establishes the Medical Research and Compensation Foundation.
An Australia-wide ban on the manufacture and use of all types of asbestos and asbestos-containing materials (ACM) took effect on 31 December 2003.
The Code of Practice for the Management and Control of Asbestos in Workplaces is developed by the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission (NOHSC).
James Hardie and the NSW Government sign historic agreement, providing $4.5 billion in funding for Australia’s asbestos victims.
National Centre for Asbestos-Related Disease established in Perth, Western Australia.
Department of Environment and Conservation subsequently classified Wittenoom as a contaminated site under the Contaminated Sites Act 2003 on 28 January 2008.
The Asbestos Diseases Research Institute located in the Bernie Banton Centre in Concord, NSW is officially opened in January. Funding for ADRI came from the Asbestos Diseases Research Foundation. ABC Journalist Matt Peacock’s book ‘Killer Company – James Hardie Exposed’ is released.
Safe Work Australia established as commonwealth statutory agency commencing operation 1 November 2009.
NSW asbestos victims to get Federal compensation in the form of a loan so that asbestos victims and families continue to be compensated.
The first Parliamentary Group on Asbestos Related Disease meeting takes place.
Workplace Health and Safety Act 2011 introduced nationally and model legislation and regulations adopted by most state and territory governments. The model WHS regulations set out a framework for the management of asbestos materials in workplaces including:
the training of all workers at risk of encountering asbestos during their work
naturally occurring asbestos
removal of asbestos
the licensing and competency requirements for asbestos removalists and assessors.
Safe Work Australia also issue the How to Manage and Control Asbestos in the Workplace and the How to Safety Remove Asbestos model Codes of Practice in December 2011.
Cyclone Yasi devastates Far North Queensland causing hazard alert for thousands of workers cleaning up debris of fibro homes. Betty – the ADRI House is launched to travel to communities to raise awareness about the dangers of asbestos in home renovation. Betty is an initiative of the Asbestos Education Committee in NSW in partnership with the Asbestos Disease Research Institute.
High Court of Australia has found seven Directors of the James Hardie group breached duties by approving of misleading statements released to the Stock Exchange. ABC broadcasts ‘Devils Dust’, a tele-movie about the life of Bernie Banton and fellow workers at James Hardie who were exposed to asbestos and contracted asbestos – related diseases and died.
The Asbestos Management Review Report released in August recommended the development of a national strategic plan to improve asbestos awareness and management in the broader community
1 July 2013
The Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency was established to provide a national focus on asbestos issues which goes beyond workplace safety to encompass environmental and public health concerns
The first international conference on Asbestos Safety takes place in Melbourne.
Bernie Banton Foundation launches their Mobile Asbestos Awareness and Resource Centre, including the introduction of ‘Stan’s Van’ to tour Australia raising awareness about the dangers of asbestos.
ACT Government acknowledges that over 1000 properties in the ACT remain contaminated with ‘Mr Fluffy’ loose-fill asbestos insulation. The Asbestos Response Taskforce is established to coordinate the Loose Fill Asbestos Eradication Scheme. Subsequent report to Government on the long term management of loose-fill asbestos insulation recommends demolition of all affected homes as the only enduring solution to the health risks posed by ‘Mr Fluffy’.
The NSW Government establishes a Parliamentary Joint Select Committee Inquiry into Loose Fill Asbestos Insulation in homes in NSW. 14 November – agency CEO Peter Tighe gives evidence at an Inquiry public hearing at Parliament House, Sydney. 17 December – Final report released by the Joint Committee and NSW Government announces a state-wide buy back and demolition of homes contaminated by Mr Fluffy loose-fill asbestos. 19 December – NSW Government establishes a taskforce to assess and consider the cost and benefits of a Government purchase/demolition scheme and make recommendations on the most cost effective option for Government.
The revised National Strategic Plan for Asbestos Management and Awareness launched on 28 August by the Minister for Employment.
Work commences on demolition of over 1,000 houses in the ACT as part of the ACT Asbestos Taskforce strategy.
The Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency releases of the National Asbestos Profile providing both a historical perspective on past exposures to asbestos, as well as information on the current management of asbestos in Australia.
Development of the National Strategic Plan for Asbestos Management and Awareness 2019-2023 is underway.
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