Asbestos FAQs

Concerned about asbestos in your home or workplace? Get answers to frequently asked questions about asbestos, and the risks it poses to health and the environment.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that is mined from the ground. It was used extensively in a wide range of building materials in the mid-to-late-20th century, until around the mid-1980s, when the health risks associated with asbestos became known.

Asbestos was once a popular building material because of its desirable properties, such as its strength, flexibility and resistance to heat, fire and friction. However, asbestos is made up of extremely fine fibres, and when airborne, these can be inhaled and become lodged in the lungs, potentially causing severe health issues.

The use of asbestos as a building material ceased after its health risks became known, but it is still present in many buildings today.

What types of asbestos are there?

Asbestos can take a number of forms, but the most commonly found in New Zealand are:

  • White asbestos (Chrysotile)
  • Brown asbestos (Amosite)
  • Blue asbestos (Crocidolite)

The longer and finer the fibres, the more dangerous asbestos is. The blue and brown forms of asbestos are therefore more dangerous than white asbestos, which has shorter, curlier fibres. However, all forms of asbestos can still pose a serious risk to health.

Asbestos is often referred to as friable and non-friable, which relates to how easily the dangerous fibres are released from the solid material.

Friable asbestos is easily broken or crumbled, releasing dangerous fibres into the air.
Non-friable asbestos is bonded asbestos that does not easily release fibres into the air, but can still do so if damaged.

What health issues does asbestos cause?

Asbestos is the leading cause of an aggressive cancer called mesothelioma. Asbestos fibres, when inhaled, can lodge in the lungs and remain there for life. These fibres can cause scarring and inflammation, which can affect breathing, and eventually result in cancer and other chronic conditions like asbestosis.

What does asbestos look like?

Asbestos fibres themselves are not visible to the naked eye, but many materials contain it. Asbestos has been used in many different building materials, making it difficult to identify all potential sources in the home or workplace. The only certain way to identify all sources of asbestos is with thorough sampling, and testing of those samples in a lab.

How do I know if there’s asbestos in my home or workplace?

As a general rule, if the building was constructed before 1990, it is likely that it will contain asbestos in some form. Buildings constructed between the late 1940s and 1980s are very likely to contain asbestos.

Asbestos was commonly used in materials including:

  • Textured ceilings
  • Corrugated roofing sheets
  • Cement boards
  • Cladding
  • Insulation
  • Pipe lagging

However there are also a great many other asbestos containing materials (ACMs) that are frequently found in buildings, and are much harder to identify.

Do I need to have asbestos removed?

If asbestos is undamaged and in good condition, it may not pose an immediate risk to health. It is only when the fibres are released into the air that asbestos poses serious health risks. So it may not be necessary to have asbestos removed, unless the asbestos is likely to be disturbed through renovation work or demolition.

If you’re in any doubt about asbestos being a risk, you should call an asbestos removalist or asbestos assessor for advice

If you are planning to undertake renovation or demolition work on an older building, it’s extremely important that you investigate the presence of asbestos first. If asbestos is present, its safe removal must be carefully planned and carried out, to protect people and the environment.

Remember it’s your responsibility to ensure the safety of contractors working on site – don’t assume they are aware of the risks of asbestos.

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