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Asbestos and public health

Although asbestos is common in our built urban environment any risks to the public from disturbed asbestos can normally be safely managed using the accompanying guidance.

The role of the Department of Health in regard to the asbestos is ensuring the proper management of any such risks to the community, including through Local Government Environmental Health officers. Asbestos is also managed by other government agencies and a list of these agencies is provided below.

Current issues

The Department of Health aims to provide information on asbestos issues as they arise including details of new Department of Health publications. 

Key regulatory agencies

There are a number of different Government agencies that have a role in controlling asbestos in a range of situations. For example, asbestos in the workplace is managed by the Department of Commerce (WorkSafe), asbestos transport and disposal is regulated by the Department of Environment Regulation, and asbestos in mining is controlled by the Department of Mines and Petroleum. The Department of Health has produced a document that provides a more detailed list of agencies with their roles and contact details. This document should help you to contact the relevant agency for your particular issue. 

Relevant health legislation

The Department of Health administers the Health (Asbestos) regulations 1992 under Health Act 1911.  The Regulations are implemented by Local Government and are presently being revised.  The Asbestos Regulations set the rules for any person, including home owners, who remove and dispose, including re-use or sale, of asbestos material.  It is important that you are aware of the current regulations before working with asbestos.

Asbestos and public exposure

Renovation asbestos risks

If you are thinking renovation, you must think asbestos.

West Australians are reminded to take care when renovating houses built prior to 1988, as it is likely that such houses contain asbestos materials.

It is important that you know about the potential health risks of asbestos and the safety precautions required before renovating a house that may contain asbestos.

Removing asbestos safely can be a complicated process. For this reason it is best carried out by licensed professionals who have completed relevant training.

If you consider removing small amounts of asbestos yourself, take the time to read the health advice outlined in the kNOW link below. 

For queries concerning asbestos removal in the home and local community contact your Local Government Health Services

Asbestos soil contamination

Contamination of soil by asbestos debris is a common occurrence in Western Australian urban areas. Advice on this issue suitable for the public is contained in the following brochure:

Public Health and Contamination of Soil by Asbestos Cement Material 2010 [PDF 250KB]

More detailed information can be obtained on the dedicated webpage related to this issue Asbestos Contaminated Sites Information

Asbestos, fire and natural disasters

Asbestos in structures may be disturbed or damaged by fire or natural disasters such as floods and cyclones. The resulting public risks and their management may differ from more common means of asbestos contamination. Although general asbestos regulatory guidance should still apply where practical, it may be necessary to vary management procedures due to the emergency nature of some of these unusual events. The following documents provide some of this specialised guidance in regard to asbestos.

Other asbestos exposures

With the role out of the national broadband system asbestos has been encountered in some Telstra subsurface pits. This process is being managed and the Department of Health’s advice is as follows:

Some degree of asbestos exposure, usually low, can result from a large range of activities where asbestos materials are disturbed. The attached survey outlines a number of these and their incidence in the urban setting:

It is also possible that mining-related activities may encounter and disturb naturally occurring asbestos. To address this issue DOH has released the following Guidance Note:

Health risks from asbestos exposure

In most cases the risk of developing an asbestos-related disease from exposure to asbestos in the community is very low but in some situations taking additional safety measures may be advisable. The attached publication provides further explanation as to what are the risks from exposure to asbestos in the situations described above:

Frequently Asked Questions

    1. What is asbestos?

    asbestos fence Asbestos is a naturally occurring material that was widely used in building materials up to 1987. It is commonly found in materials such as:

    • Roofing, shingles and siding
    • Fencing
    • Exterior wall cladding
    • Backing material on floor tiles and vinyl flooring
    • Textured paints and
    • Water or flue pipes

    2.    How do I know if a material contains asbestos?

    Generally, a person cannot determine whether a material contains asbestos simply by looking at it. Careful visual examination and the use of a microscope is the only way to verify the presence of asbestos. Look in the yellow pages under ‘analysts’ for a NATA accredited laboratory that can confirm the presence of asbestos in a product.

     If in doubt, and the material is installed prior to 1988, treat the suspect material as though it does contain asbestos.

    3.     What are the health effects of asbestos exposure?

    Asbestos vinyl tiles In its raw form, asbestos is well known to cause health effects in humans. Exposure to asbestos fibres can cause the following diseases:

    • Pleural Plaque
    • Asbestosis
    • Lung Cancer
    • Mesothelioma

    The risk of developing an asbestos-related disease depends on the total number of fibres inhaled.

    To date, the majority of people who have developed asbestos related diseases have been exposed to relatively large numbers of fibres, as a result of contact with the material in their occupation.

    4. When does exposure to asbestos present a risk?

    Generally, undisturbed asbestos cement products do not pose a health risk, as the fibres are bound together in a solid cement matrix.  Many other asbestos products, such as floor tiles, also have a strong bonding matrix. 

    It is normally only when asbestos products are highly weathered or damaged that they may present an expousure risk. 

    5. How do I remove asbestos?

    Old asbestos roof If you decide to remove asbestos from your home it is important that you comply with the Health (Asbestos) Regulations 1992 (External link)

    It is important that you know the dangers of asbestos and what safety precautions you need to take before renovating or removing asbestos material.

    Key points to remember are:

    • Wet the surface of asbestos material down before commencing removal.
    • Do not use power tools on any asbestos material
    • Wear suitable personal protective clothing
    • Dispose of asbestos material at an approved landfill site

    6. Do I need approval before removing asbestos from my house?

    Any building renovation work (involving removal of asbestos from your home) may require obtaining a building licence or in the case of removal of a building a demolition licence. Contact your local government health and building department for further advice.

    7. Where do I dispose of asbestos?

    All asbestos material must be disposed at a landfill or waste disposal site licensed by the Department of Environment and Regulation. Not all landfill sites accept asbestos.

    For an updated list of facilities accepting asbestos materials refer to the Department of Environmental and Regulation (External link) and read to the fact sheet titled "Asbestos".

    8. Who do I make a complaint to about illegal asbestos removal and/or dumping?

    If you have concerns over the inappropriate removal of asbestos or illegal dumping of asbestos material please contact your Local Government Environmental Health Services. Refer to the Local Government Directory (External link) for your local contact details.

    Occupational safety issues

    Any issues with the management of asbestos in an occupational environment (e.g. work place) should be referred to the Department of Commerce (WorkSafe WA) on (08) 6251 2200 or the WorkSafe WA website . (External link)

    Further Information

    For further advice on asbestos removal and disposal, or to make a complaint on asbestos dumping or removal, contact your Local Government Environmental Health Services. Refer to the Local Government Directory for your local contact details. (External link)

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