Health Effects of Asbestos Exposure in Australia

Asbestos fibres are easily inhaled and ingested, causing a number of health problems.

Asbestos is a natural mineral that is made up of tiny fibres. Because of its durability and versatility, asbestos became one of the preferred building materials. It was used in insulation for homes and businesses, in cement for residential housing and schools and in roofing materials.

When asbestos is broken or disturbed, microscopic, needle-like fibres are released into the air and can enter the lungs or abdomen. These small fibres can become lodged in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart, causing serious diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.

In Australia, the mineral was mined and milled from the 1930s to the 1960s in the town of Wittenoom in Western Australia. The entire town was closed in 1966 because of the rising number of health problems and deaths associated with exposure to asbestos. To date, the Wittenoon tragedy is considered one of the greatest industrial disasters in Australia.

In every community, asbestos products can be found in businesses, homes and schools. When these materials are weathered by the elements or disturbed by human contact, the materials can be damaged and release fibres into the air and water where they can be ingested or inhaled.

Because of the health hazard posed by exposure to asbestos, the use and importation of the mineral was banned in 2003, but many products made prior to 2003 still contain asbestos.

Asbestos and Mesothelioma

Today, the Asbestos Diseases Society of Victoria estimates that more than 2,500 people each year are diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases and the number is growing.

One of the most aggressive and devastating asbestos-related diseases is mesothelioma. This rare and malignant cancer is almost always associated with asbestos exposure. Tumours can be found in the lining of the lungs, heart and abdomen. Approximately 94 percent of all cases in Australia occur in the lining of the lungs called the pleura.

Pleural mesothelioma is a usually fatal cancer that is often diagnosed 20 to 50 years after initial exposure to asbestos. Symptoms can include chest pain, difficulty breathing, cough, fever and weight loss. Because symptoms of the disease are usually mistaken for less serious health ailments, many people are not diagnosed until later stages of the disease when treatment options are limited.

Bio: Michelle Y. Llamas is a writer for the Mesothelioma Center. She is committed to generating awareness about the dangers of asbestos exposure and providing information regarding breakthroughs in mesothelioma treatment.