What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring silicate mineral. There are six ‘common’ types of asbestos, the most common in New Zealand being Chrysotile (white asbestos), Amosite (brown asbestos) and Crocidolite (blue asbestos).
Asbestos forms in fibres, which are thin enough to be inhaled. Asbestos generally has excellent insulation properties but is also very brittle (the fibres can snap like a piece of dry spaghetti) which is often how it can become airborne.
An owner or company must make sure that exposure to airborne asbestos is eliminated, so far as is reasonably practicable. If elimination is not reasonably practicable, exposure must be minimised as far as reasonably practicable.
Asbestos degrades over time, and with exposure to chemicals, the weather, water damage, lichen growth or disturbance, when degraded asbestos fibres are more likely to break and become airborne.
Where would it be found in a house?
Asbestos has been used in building and household products in New Zealand since the 1930s. Two factories have operated in New Zealand creating Asbestos Containing Materials (ACMs) – in Auckland and Christchurch.
Buildings that were constructed, altered or refurbished from 1940 until the mid-1980s are likely to include asbestos containing materials. Buildings created from 2000 are less likely to contain ACMs, but this is not a guarantee.
Asbestos was often used for its insulation and fire retardant properties. As such it can often be found in ACM weatherboard, insulating board, friction linings, fire doors, gas and electric heaters, fuse boxes, gaskets, pipe lagging, sprayed insulation and brake linings.
What forms are harmful?
Asbestos is known to cause work related diseases or death, and to be hazardous when inhaled. When fibres are breathed in, they lodge in the lungs and may cause diseases like asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. The health risks are increased with an increase of fibre inhalation.
The risk to health is low if asbestos or Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) is in good condition or undisturbed, as this decreases the likelihood that airborne asbestos particles will be released. In this instance, it can be safer to leave asbestos or ACM as is and monitor the condition over time.
What if I find it?
Generally, working with asbestos or ACMs is prohibited. If a method for managing risks associated with asbestos is approved by WorkSafe, it is permitted as asbestos related work, even if it is not specifically mentioned in the Asbestos Regulations.
The Act and Regulations work together to ensure asbestos risks are managed so that the asbestos on the site does not harm workers or others who may be exposed to airborne fibres. The Regulations specify risk management procedure. This includes how asbestos should be identified (or assumed to be present) and how the risks resulting from the asbestos should be managed. This should be explained in an Asbestos Management Plan prepared by (or on behalf of) the PCBU.
Where can I find out more?