Killer dust: Why is asbestos still killing people?

A long vertical pipe sits against white-painted brickwork in the corner of a cramped storeroom. Two men wearing orange boiler suits and gloves crouch at its base. One uses a scraper to remove lumps of what looks like wet papier-mâché from the outside of the pipe, into a red bag held by the other. Both men are breathing through facemasks, their air sucked from outside the isolation unit: a short, makeshift corridor constructed from black plastic panels and transparent polythene sheeting. An extractor fan hums relentlessly.

It might look like a scene from a horror movie in which scientists fight to contain a virus, but the truth is more banal – though no less deadly. The two men are removing asbestos insulation from a heating pipe in a west London hospital. Ordinarily there would be bright yellow tape with the words “WARNING asbestos” on it, the site supervisor tells me. But this is an especially sensitive job. The neighbouring ward’s beds are filled by patients with acute respiratory conditions, and the hospital’s management decided that advertising the true nature of the work might cause alarm.

asbestos sheeting

Thirteen people a day in the UK die from exposure to asbestos – more than double the number that die on the roads. In the USA, asbestos will be responsible for around 10,000 deaths this year, meaning it kills close to as many people as gun crime or skin cancer.

Health fears associated with asbestos were first raised at the end of the 19th century. Asbestosis, an inflammatory condition affecting the lungs that causes shortness of breath, coughing and other lung damage, was described in medical literature in the 1920s. By the mid-1950s, when the first epidemiological study of asbestos-related lung cancer was published, the link to fatal disease was well established.

Yet in 2012, rather than falling, worldwide asbestos production increased and international exports surged by 20 per cent. A full ban did not come into force in the UK until 1999, and the European Union’s deadline for member states to end its use was just nine years ago. Today, asbestos is still used in large quantities in many parts of Asia, eastern Europe and South America, while even in the USA and Canada, controlled use is allowed.

The remarkable endurance of this magic mineral turned deadly dust is a complex tale. One of scientific deception and betrayal, greed, political collusion, the power of propaganda, and, above all, the willingness of some executives to knowingly subject hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people around the world to severe illness and even death in the pursuit of profit.

blue asbestos mine

Magic minerals

Asbestos is a generic term used to describe six naturally occurring minerals made up of thin fibrous crystals. Chrysotile, or white asbestos, is the only form still in use, and accounts for 95 per cent of the asbestos mined and used by humans historically. Its curly fibres make it more flexible than a family of five other forms known as the amphiboles – amosite (brown asbestos), crocidolite (blue asbestos), anthophyllite, tremolite and actinolite – which all consist of needle-like fibres.

The characteristics of asbestos – strong, lightweight and heat-resistant – and the fact it could be split into fibres, mixed with other materials and easily shaped meant that use of the mineral soon caught on. Large-scale mining began in the second half of the 19th century in the USA, Italy and Canada, and during the 20th century it was incorporated into a huge variety of products, especially building materials such as concrete, pipes, cement, bricks, tiles and insulation for buildings and ships. It was also used in car parts, protective clothing, mattresses and even cigarette filters. The industry significantly expanded during both World Wars.

You may not have to look hard to find asbestos where you live or work. Many buildings still have asbestos-based components, including pipe insulation, decorative coatings, ceiling boards, fireproofing panels, window in-fill panels and cold water tanks.

countries where asbestos is banned

Research into precisely how asbestos causes mesothelioma and other forms of lung cancer is ongoing. The fibres are so small that most can only be seen under a microscope. Billions can be inhaled in a single day with no immediate effect, but longer-term the consequences can be deadly.

The fibres can become lodged in the lining of organs such as the lungs, causing damage that interrupts the normal cell cycle, leading to uncontrollable cell division and tumour growth. Asbestos is also linked to changes in the membranes surrounding the lungs – the pleura – including pleural thickening, the formation of scar tissue (plaques), and abnormal collections of fluid (pleural effusion).

“There is absolutely no doubt that all kinds [of asbestos] can give rise to asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma,” says Paul Cullinan, Professor of Occupational and Environmental Respiratory Disease at the National Heart and Lung Institute, Imperial College London. “It’s probably the case that white asbestos is less toxic in respect to mesothelioma than the amphiboles. The industry tries to argue that you can take precautions so that white asbestos can be used safely, but in practice, in the real world, that is not what is going to happen.”

This is the firm scientific consensus. But not everyone agrees.

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Source: Killer dust | Mosaic

Test and Tag Intervals: How often do I Test and Tag?

Most tradies will need to test & tag their equipment every 3 months.

When understanding the test and tag intervals and how often an electrical appliance should be tested, the main underlying factor is the type of environment that appliance is located in.

Just as important, the AS/NZS 3760 standard (Table 4) should be seen as a minimum requirement. A lot of workplaces will have different test and tag frequencies because of their own risk management and OHS planning. Likewise, some of these industries might require you to use certain Test and Tag Colours.

For the most common environments, we recommend the following frequencies:

  • 3 months – building, construction and demolition
  • 6 months – factories, warehouses and production
  • 12 months – an environment where the equipment/supply cord is prone to flexing or open to abuse
  • 5 yearly – an environment where the equipment/supply cord is not prone to flexing or open to abuse

Table 4: AS/NZS 3760 – Test and Tag Intervals

The intervals listed below are only a recommendation and should be taken into account as a minimum requirement when PAT testing. If you have been given the job to test and tag a workplace and then discover that the previous person responsible for this task was testing items at a different frequency than recommended, it could be because:

1) The person testing and tagging was ill-informed about the test periods and is doing it incorrectly

2) The workplace business owner has completed their own risk assessment

For the full article, refer to for the latest news and expert advice

Australians at risk from asbestos in imported building products: industry association

Australians are at risk of being exposed to asbestos in imported building products, an industry group has warned.

The Asbestos Industry Association said the potentially deadly material was discovered in cement compound board from China two months ago.

“The samples were tested in Asia with a certificate saying they were asbestos-free,” association president Michael Shepherd told the ABC.

“We analysed those samples according to Australian standards and detected the presence of chrysotile or white asbestos.”

The discovery was the latest in a number of imported building products that have tested positive for asbestos in the past year, including cement compound board in Canberra.

But Mr Shepherd said Australian border protection officials were not stopping the potentially deadly products from entering the country.

“Importers are accepting these goods in good faith and they’re relying on the documentation from overseas stating these products are asbestos-free,” he said.

“From what we know, customs are checking less than 5 per cent of all products that come into Australia, so it’s very difficult to identify which products are coming in and which products do contain asbestos.”

‘No guarantee new Australian buildings are risk-free’

The Asbestos Related Disease Support Society Queensland has called for urgent action to protect people who could be exposed to asbestos.

“It will bring through another wave of asbestos-related diseases,” spokeswoman Amanda Richards said.

“I mean, these people might have worked with these products for a while before they realise it’s asbestos.”

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection said it was looking into the matter.

Australian Border Force commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg told Senate Estimates this week the problem was ongoing.

He was asked by Senator Lisa Singh if he agreed with the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency that there was no guarantee Australian buildings built after the asbestos ban in 2003 would be risk-free.

“Yes I would,” Mr Quaedvlieg replied.

He was also quizzed about the role customs officials play in protecting Australians from contaminated building products.

“That’s where we can stop this, at the gate so to speak,” Senator Singh said.

“You are right. We have certainly raised the level of awareness and consciousness in our workforce in relation to their responsibilities in this regard,” Mr Quaedvlieg said.

He said he was due to travel to China over the weekend to discuss the matter.

“I make no secret of the fact that drugs is very high up on the agenda, but certainly prohibited imports like asbestos will be part of that conversation,” he said.


First published by By Stephanie Smail