When you hear discussion about the different types of asbestos, you may have heard of references made by colour, such as "blue asbestos" or "brown asbestos." Perhaps you've heard references relating to how it looks, like "Mr Fluffy," a name that described the texture and appearance of a type of insulation used in the 1960s and 1970s. Even if you are exposed to asbestos, it might seem reasonable to link the smell to the material it was in - like soil, rock, insulation or fibro?
You can’t tell by looking if a material contains asbestos. The fibres are microscopic, so they’re not visible to the naked eye. Asbestos has no taste or smell. If you know someone who claims asbestos smells like chemicals or has a distinguishable smell, they are most likely associating another smell with asbestos. Importantly, trying to smell it could put you at risk of breathing in fibres. More than 4,000 Australians die each year from asbestos-related diseases, including asbestosis, lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma, a cancer linked to inhaling asbestos particles that forms in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart. Health effects can take many years to develop and while there are modes of treatments available, for some asbestos-related health effects, cures are currently not available.
How do you identify asbestos? The only way to verify whether there is asbestos present is by testing at a NATA accredited testing facility, like our Sydney Envirolab Services laboratory or our Perth laboratory, MPL Laboratories. In accordance with state and territory regulations, we offer fast turnarounds and accurate reporting directly as well through licenced asbestos assessors, occupational hygienists and licenced asbestos removalists for commercial and non-residential properties. We support client projects in construction, mining and other sectors in metropolitan and rural areas across Australia. From our easy-to-understand reporting, our clients have the right information to make more informed decisions to manage asbestos, including naturally occurring asbestos (NOA) in accordance with regulations.
From the enquiries and testing requirements, it's important to understand the dangers of working with asbestos where there are different types of asbestos that are worth knowing about.
What is asbestos?
The term “asbestos” designates a group of naturally occurring fibrous serpentine or amphibole minerals with current or historical commercial usefulness due to their extraordinary tensile strength, poor heat conduction and relative resistance to chemical attack. The principal varieties of asbestos are chrysotile, a serpentine material, and actinolite, amosite, anthophyllite, crocidolite and tremolite, which are amphiboles.
In Australia, some of the common types used have been chrysotile, amosite, and crocidolite. Asbestos was used in over 3,000 products before 1990 – many uses were in residential construction and fit-out before it was banned in this country from 31 December 2003.
Given that 2003 was some time ago, many of us may consider asbestos to be an old issue, perhaps relevant to only workplace environments. However, large amounts of asbestos-containing materials remain present in Australian homes, workplaces and the built environment. The Australian Government Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency’s (ASEA) research shows that even amongst targeted trades (for example, construction workers, electricians and plumbers), awareness is low regarding where asbestos can be and what to do to stay safe. The increase of do-it-yourself (DIY) projects or home maintenance, particularly during COVID lockdown, further raises questions on how many of these projects have been or are being done safely – wearing the correct personal protective equipment (PPE) or taking safety precautions to prevent exposure to asbestos.
Different types of asbestos
A member of the amphibole class of asbestos minerals, actinolite consists of the elements iron, calcium, magnesium, silicon, oxygen and hydrogen. As a naturally formed mineral in the earth’s crust, actinolite is found across the world in non-fibrous and fibrous forms.
Slightly rarer than other types of asbestos, actinolite has historically been less often used industrially. However, fibrous actinolite (also known as asbestiform actinolite) and its pairing with other minerals, for instance, vermiculite, provided an effective use for insulation. Other uses have extended to paints, sealants and cement materials. Its long and sharp fibres can be easily inhaled once airborne and subsequently pose a health risk as these micro hairlike fibres may lodge in the lungs, and lead to health complications.
Also known as “brown” or “grey” asbestos, amosite was one of the commonly used types of asbestos in Australia.
Mined in South Africa in its natural type, grunerite, this was then shipped around the world in high demand because of its durability and high heat resistance in making cement sheets, roofing, ceiling tiles and insulation materials including the Mr Fluffy asbestos insulation products, which continue to affect home renovators and tradespeople.
During the 1970s, many countries started to phase out and gradually ban the use of amosite as its dangers became more apparent and scientific evidence established that asbestos causes cancer and chronic respiratory diseases. Amosite is composed of highly friable fibres, meaning it crumbles easily into fine dust with very light pressure, such as crushing in your hand. When these fibre bundles break, fibres become airborne and can be breathed in by people living or working in the vicinity.
Also known as azbolen asbestos, this rarer form of asbestos has a high concentration of iron and magnesium and was mined in a few mines around the world, including Finland and the US. This mineral was also mined in Japan.
Like actinolite, anthophyllite has historically only been used in a limited number of products, but trace amounts of anthophyllite as a contaminant have been found in composite flooring and vermiculite products.
As the only type of asbestos falling into the serpentine mineral category, chrysotile has been one of the commonly used forms of asbestos and is also known as white asbestos. Natural deposits of chrysotile are often accompanied by trace amounts of other types of asbestos.
Currently the only known type of serpentine asbestos, chrysotile is characterised by fibres that are curly or wavy in nature, compared to the straight, needle-like nature of amphibole asbestos types. These fibrous characteristics enable this form to be easily woven through textile fabrication processes, similar to materials like cotton or wool. Its heat resistance also made chrysotile ideal for various materials including fireproofing, insulation, cement products, and brake pads.
Although not often used for commercial purposes, tremolite asbestos is known for its heat-resistant properties and that it could be spun and woven into cloth, making it ideal for flexible and heat resistance materials. Tremolite has been found as a contaminant in other materials like vermiculite and talc. These are common ingredients in a number of products, ranging from fertiliser to plasterboard.
Testing for Asbestos
Do you think you have asbestos in your home or business premises? Perhaps you are not sure about a substance in your building or DIY project?
With NATA accreditation and the support of a highly experienced team, Envirolab Services can provide laboratory testing of air, soil, water as well as a range of other materials, such as fibro and vinyl tiles. Fast turnarounds are available to meet your project requirements.
Contact us now to learn more about our asbestos testing services or even how to properly perform an asbestos test.