WHAT IS ASBESTOS?
Asbestos is term for a naturally occurring rock-forming mineral that has been has been minded extensively around the world and used for thousands of years.
There are six common types of asbestos. In New Zealand, white asbestos was the most common form of asbestos used, followed by brown asbestos and small amounts of blue asbestos.
Under a microscope, white asbestos has long, curly fibres, which are flexible enough to spin and weave into fabric. Its versatility made it the most common type of asbestos in home building and household products.
Brown asbestos has harsh, spiky fibres. It was mostly mined in Africa, and was frequently used in asbestos cement sheet and pipe insulation. It was also used in insulation board, ceiling tiles and thermal insulation.
Blue asbestos was known for its excellent heat resistance. It was mostly mined in South Africa, Bolivia and Australia. Blue asbestos fibres are very thin which makes them easy to inhale and lodge in the linings of a person’s lungs.
ASBESTOS IN OUR HOMES & BUILDINGS
Asbestos was widely used in building materials because of its resistance to fire, heat, chemicals, noise, and the strength it added to otherwise brittle materials like cement.
Many buildings or homes built before before 1 January 2000 are likely to contain some type of asbestos materials. Buildings built after 1 January 2000 are less likely to contain asbestos containing materials, but due the ban on imported products not coming into effect until October 2016, some buildings built after this time may still contain asbestos products.
All forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans. A carcinogen
is any substance that has the potential to cause cancer in living tissues. Carcinogen exposure can occur from the inhalation, ingestion, or absorption of many different types of substances into our bodies. Carcinogens act on our DNA, causing dangerous changes at the cellular level.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), about 125 million people in the world are exposed to asbestos in the workplace. Approximately half of the deaths from occupational cancer are estimated to be caused by asbestos. In 2010, an estimated 600-900 people died of work-related diseases in New Zealand. Of that number, around 170 people died of asbestos-related diseases, which made asbestos the single biggest cause of work-related disease deaths.
Asbestos particles can be finer than a single human hair. Breathing in airborne asbestos fibres poses a serious risk to health. Once the fibres are breathed in, they lodge in the lungs and may cause diseases like asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. More recent studies have found links between asbestos to other forms of cancer including ovarian and prostate cancers. In addition, people who smoke and work with asbestos are at a greater risk of developing lung cancer than from asbestos exposure alone.
Most asbestos-related diseases take around 20 years before their symptoms start to show. Health risks increase when people inhale more fibres or exposure is more frequent. All types of asbestos can cause asbestos-related disease.
There is no recommended safe level for asbestos exposure, but if proper precautions are taken, the risk is considered to be low. Friable asbestos materials however, should always be handled by professionals who are trained in the correct procedures. For more information on the health implications of asbestos exposure refer to the Ministry of Health website.
NATIONAL ASBESTOS REGISTER
The National Asbestos Register was set up to monitor asbestos exposure numbers in New Zealand. Anyone who believes they were exposed to asbestos, or was diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease, is welcome to join the register by completing a Notifiable Occupational Disease System (NODS) form from