Module 2: Recognition of Asbestos and Asbestos-Containing Materials (ACMs)
Module 3: Legal and Regulatory Framework
Module 4: Safe Work Practices & Control Measures
Module 5: Decontamination & Disposal
Module 6: Case Studies & Best Practices

1A. What is Asbestos?

This section delves into the critical health risks associated with asbestos exposure. Asbestos fibers, when inhaled, can cause severe respiratory diseases and cancers, with symptoms often appearing decades after exposure. Understanding these health risks is crucial for recognising the importance of stringent asbestos management and control measures.

How Asbestos Exposure Occurs

  • Asbestos exposure occurs primarily through inhalation of airborne fibers. These fibers can become airborne during the disturbance of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) through activities such as cutting, drilling, or demolition.
  • Once inhaled, asbestos fibers can become lodged in the lung tissue. Due to their durability, the body cannot easily break down or expel these fibers, leading to inflammation and scarring.

Diseases Associated with Asbestos Exposure

There are many serious health implications of asbestos exposure, including asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer, highlighting the importance of understanding these diseases for effective risk management and prevention efforts.

  • Asbestosis: A chronic lung condition characterised by scarring of lung tissue, leading to difficulty breathing and decreased lung function. Symptoms include shortness of breath, persistent dry cough, chest tightness, and in severe cases, heart enlargement. Asbestosis is directly related to the extent and duration of asbestos exposure.
  • Mesothelioma: An aggressive cancer affecting the membrane lining of the lungs and abdomen. Mesothelioma is almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure, with symptoms including chest pain, abdominal pain, weight loss, and fluid buildup. Mesothelioma has a poor prognosis and is often diagnosed at an advanced stage.
  • Lung Cancer: Asbestos exposure significantly increases the risk of developing lung cancer, especially in individuals who smoke. Symptoms mirror those of other lung cancers, including persistent cough, chest pain, hoarseness, and weight loss.
  • Other Cancers: Evidence suggests a link between asbestos exposure and other types of cancer, including laryngeal and ovarian cancers.

Exposure and Disease Latency

  • The latency period, or the time from exposure to the onset of disease, can be lengthy, often ranging from 20 to 50 years. This delay complicates the diagnosis and can lead to late-stage identification of asbestos-related diseases.

Global and Australian Statistics

  • Asbestos Statistics
    • Worldwide Prevalence: It is estimated that asbestos-related diseases account for approximately 100,000 deaths globally each year. This includes workers exposed to asbestos as well as secondary exposure cases.
    • Industrial Impact: Countries with historical heavy use of asbestos in industries and construction face the highest rates of asbestos-related diseases. However, the problem is global, affecting both developed and developing nations.
    • Historical Context: Australia was among the highest per capita users of asbestos in the world until the mid-1980s. Asbestos was extensively used in construction, manufacturing, and several other industries.
    • Mesothelioma Cases: Australia reports one of the highest rates of mesothelioma globally, with over 700 new cases diagnosed annually. This high incidence rate is directly tied to the country’s extensive use of asbestos in the past.
    • Asbestos Bans and Legacy: Australia fully banned asbestos in all its forms in 2003. Despite the ban, the legacy of asbestos use continues to impact health due to existing asbestos in buildings, infrastructure, and the environment.
    • Other Asbestos-Related Diseases: Besides mesothelioma, there are significant numbers of lung cancer, asbestosis, and other asbestos-related disease cases each year. These illnesses also contribute to the health burden and mortality related to asbestos exposure.

Preventive Measures

Preventative strategies are used to minimize asbestos exposure risks, including best practices for handling, regulation compliance, and safety protocols essential for protecting workers and the general public from health hazards. We’ll learn more about these in details in later modules of this course.

  • Asbestos Management and Compliance: Implement asbestos management plans, engage licensed removal professionals, and adhere to all legal requirements for handling, removal, and disposal.
  • Training and Personal Protection: Provide comprehensive training on asbestos awareness and ensure the use of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) for anyone potentially exposed to asbestos.
  • Regular Inspections and Emergency Preparedness: Conduct regular asbestos inspections and air monitoring, and establish clear procedures for accidental disturbances, including immediate area isolation and professional remediation.