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Asbestos is the name given to a group of naturally occurring mineral fibres found in rock formations. All forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans. Asbestos becomes a risk to health if fibres are released into the air and breathed into the lungs. Exposure to asbestos fibres causes cancer of the lung, larynx, ovaries and mesothelioma (a cancer of the pleural and peritoneal linings). Asbestos exposure is also responsible for other diseases such as asbestosis (fibrosis of the lungs).

In Australia asbestos was used in a wide range of building products and materials up until the late 1980s. The use, import and export of asbestos containing materials was prohibited in Australia at the end of 2003.

There are a number of websites you can visit to learn about asbestos.

Asbestos is a known carcinogen that causes fatal and debilitating diseases. It kills 4000 Australians every year.

Asbestos is banned throughout Australia, and its pervasive use over the last 100 years has created a legacy of asbestos containing materials (ACMs) in the built environment.

More than 3000 products containing asbestos were used in Australia before asbestos was banned, including:

  • fire blankets and curtains, and insulation in heaters and stoves
  • shingles or tiles (external or ceiling),
  • corrugated asbestos cement roofing sheets and ceiling insulation products pipes,
  • tubes or fittings (for example flue pipes) and lagging or jointing materials (including on pipes) asbestos rope, electrical cloth and tapes, mastics, sealants, putties, adhesives, and heat-resistant sealing and caulking compounds
  • textured paints/coatings and asbestos bitumen damp-proofing products
  • compressed, rubberised or polymerised asbestos fibre gaskets and seals floor coverings (for example vinyl asbestos tiles) and the backings of linoleum floor coverings
  • brake pads and clutch facings electrical switchboard panels. 1

ACM products in buildings vary in age from 30 to 100 years old; the majority of ACMs were manufactured between 30-60 years ago and have been in place for the same period. This age means that asbestos products are starting to degrade, increasing the risk of becoming friable and releasing fibres.

ACMs that when manufactured or installed were not friable, can become friable in the course of ageing, deterioration, disturbance or damage and release asbestos fibres. Research by ASEA showed that aging ACMS remain in place even though they are beyond their product life. The research reinforced that weathering, damage and disturbance of ACMS can further reduce product life.

Control of risk

The Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (Vic) s.4 establishes that “the importance of health and safety requires that employees, other persons at work and members of the public must be given the highest level of protection against risks to their health and safety that is reasonably practicable in the circumstances.”

This is done by applying the hierarchy of control, which is a step-by step approach to eliminating or reducing risks. It ranks risk controls from the highest level of protection and reliability through to the lowest and least reliable protection.

Hierarchy of control

These controls (from measures that are most effective at reducing risk to least effective measures) are:

  1. Eliminate, hazards and risks - this provides highest level of protection & most effective control: removing asbestos.
  2. Reduce risk using one or more of:
    • substitution with safer material
    • isolation (of people from risks)
    • engineering controls
  3. Administrative controls: asbestos registers, asbestos audits, asbestos containing materials signage
  4. Personal protective equipment: respirators, goggles, body suits

Hierarchy of Risk Control Infographic

Hierarchy of Risk Control
Hierarchy of Risk Control Infographic
Download Hierarchy of Risk Control Infographic

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Medical and government experts have confirmed that removing asbestos is the most effective way to deal with asbestos risk, including the risk of asbestos related disease.

“The most effective way to manage the long-term risks of exposure to asbestos is via its complete removal. Organisations opting to proactively remove asbestos reduce risk to employees and contractors, remove the need for ongoing maintenance and asbestos audits, and ultimately increase the value and potential reuse options for the site.”- Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency 2

“Whilst we have asbestos in our built environment, people will continue to inadvertently drill into it, sand it or dismantle it, so I think the less asbestos there is, the more likely we are to be able to control the incidence of this disease.”- Prof Anna Nowak, Director University of Western Australia National Research Centre for Asbestos Related Diseases 3

1 ASEA, National Asbestos Profile for Australia, Nov 17, p.16 -…External Link - accessed 27.7.22 The website Link includes a comprehensive database of commonly used ACMs in Australia, mostly found in buildings.

2…External Link - p-6.-8.

3 Prof Anna Nowak, Director UWA’s National Research Centre for Asbestos Related Diseases, quoted in West Australian, 18 Nov 2018, p.16 “Push for asbestos removal payment”, Pheobe Warne.

Reviewed 20 October 2022