What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral made up of many small fibres. These fibres are very strong and are highly resistant to heat, fire, chemicals and wear.

Past uses of asbestos

In the past, the special properties of asbestos made it popular for:

  • asbestos-cement sheet cladding, roofing and drainage pipes
  • backing material for floor tiles and vinyl sheets
  • insulation board for thermal protection (eg, around fire places)
  • textured ceilings and sprayed-on wall surfaces
  • lagging for insulation around pipes, heaters and hot water cylinders
  • vehicle brakes and clutches
  • textiles
  • spouting and guttering components.

Asbestos was also used in household items, such as:

  • oven gloves
  • ironing board pads
  • simmer mats for stoves
  • fire blankets.

Asbestos was mainly imported and used before the 1980s. Once the health risks of asbestos were known, its use was gradually stopped, and other materials replaced it. However, products and appliances with asbestos content may still be around, particularly in homes built before 1984.

Kinds of asbestos

The most common types of asbestos fibre you are likely to find are:

  • chrysotile (white)
  • amosite (brown)
  • crocidolite (blue).

The colour differences are very slight and laboratory analysis is needed to identify different types of asbestos fibre.

It is now illegal to import these three types of asbestos in their raw fibrous states and any manufactured items that contain asbestos.

Asbestos is grouped into serpentine (curly fibres) and amphibole (needle-like fibres). Chrysotile (or white asbestos) is the only serpentine type of asbestos. The amphibole types are anthrophylite, crocidolite (blue asbestos), actinolite, tremolite and amosite (brown asbestos).
Image: The types of asbestos

Based on our publication All about Asbestos: Protecting your health at home.

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