What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a useful mineral that occurs naturally in the environment and has been used for centuries in the manufacture of products that humans rely quite heavily on in their day-to-day lives. The types of products in which one might find asbestos include cement, roof sheets and tiles, gutters, brake linings and most fire-resistant or insulation products. 

Although its use in industry has been banned in South Africa since 2008 due, in point to the risks it poses to our health, asbestos is still found in older buildings and homes today.

Where can Asbestos be found?

Because the level of exposure that may cause health problems is unknown, any exposure to asbestos should be avoided. It is estimated that at least one in every three buildings constructed between the 1940’s and 1990’s contains asbestos products.

Asbestos may be found either firmly or loosely bound in a number of products once used in the South African construction industry, including:

  • Roof Sheeting and Shingles
  • Facia boards, sidings, gutters and window sills
  • Prefabricated building walls or internal partition walls
  • Insulation products in walls and roofs
  • Vinyl floor tiles
  • Textured paint and patching compounds used on walls and ceilings
  • Hot Water and Steam pipes coated with asbestos material, blankets or lagging for insulation
  • Boiler cladding
  • Water pipes
When is Asbestos dangerous?

The most common way for asbestos fibres to enter the body is through breathing. In fact, asbestos-containing material is not generally considered to be harmful unless it is releasing dust or fibres into the air where they can be inhaled or ingested. Many of the fibres will become trapped in the mucous membranes of the nose and throat where they can then be removed, but some may pass deep into the lungs or, if swallowed, into the digestive tract. Once they are trapped in the body, the fibres will cause health problems.

Asbestos is most hazardous when it is friable. The term friable means that the asbestos is easily crumbled by hand, releasing fibres into the air. Sprayed-on asbestos insulation is highly friable.

Asbestos-containing ceiling tiles, floor tiles, undamaged laboratory cabinet tops, shingles, fire doors, siding shingles, etc. will not release asbestos fibers unless they are disturbed or damaged in some way. If an asbestos ceiling tile is drilled or broken, it may release fibers into the air (The act of breaking or drilling into Asbestos Sheeting is illegal and can only be approved by the department of labour and can only be performed by an approved asbestos contractor). If it is left alone and not disturbed, it will not release fibers into the air.

Damage and deterioration will increase the friability of asbestos-containing materials. Water damage, continual vibration, aging and physical impact such as drilling, grinding, buffing, cutting, sawing or striking, can break the materials down making fiber release more likely.

How can I be Exposed to Asbestos?

Asbestos is a risk to health only when the fibers are dispersed in the air and inhaled into the lungs. When asbestos is contained within another material and fibers are not liberated, the risk to health is minimal., However, any work or process that disturbs the fabric of the asbestos-containing material (ACM) and that releases fibers, such as drilling, cutting, high-pressure cleaning, demolishing or even natural deterioration and weathering of the ACM, introduces a serious threat to human health. Materials that are made from pure asbestos or that contain high percentages of asbestos, such as insulation and lagging material, are far more dangerous than low percentage ACMs, such as asbestos-cement products.

How Big is the Problem?

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that worldwide there are more than 100 000 asbestos-related deaths per year and that, currently, 125 million workers are exposed to the deadly fiber. In the United Kingdom, the death toll is estimated at approximately 3 500 per year and, in the USA, 10 000 per year. This is nothing less than a global epidemic!

In South Africa, about 200 mesothelioma cases are reported per year but this is most likely an underestimate considering the magnitude of mining and processing that took place in a country that was a leading global supplier of all types of asbestos.

How may I be in Danger?

Any person that, knowingly or unknowingly, performs work on asbestos or ACM, and any person that happens to be in the vicinity of such work, is in danger. Particularly at risk are people in the building and construction-related professions such as roofing contractors, heating and ventilation engineers, building and demolition contractors, electricians, plumbers, joiners, tradesmen, carpenters, painters, etc.

How do I Recognise Asbestos Material?

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that worldwide there are more than 100 000 asbestos-related deaths per year and that, currently, 125 million workers are exposed to the deadly fiber. In the United Kingdom, the death toll is estimated at approximately 3 500 per year and, in the USA, 10 000 per year. This is nothing less than a global epidemic! Asbestos in buildings is present in either loose, friable form (such as loose insulation material) or, more often, hidden within another material (such as asbestos cement products). Fibers might be visible in the friable form but are seldom seen in asbestos-cement and similar products. In both cases it is not possible to identify asbestos with certainty by visual examination alone and laboratory analysis is often required. Since March 2008 asbestos is effectively banned in South Africa, and it is unlikely to find asbestos-containing materials in buildings constructed after that year. The golden rule is always: when in doubt assume the material contains asbestos!