Asbestos is the name given to a group of naturally occurring minerals found in rock formations. Three types of asbestos were mined in Australia: white, blue and brown asbestos.
Large deposits were mined in Western Australia and New South Wales and there were smaller operations in Tasmania and South Australia. Asbestos mining had ended in Australia by 1983 but it is still mined in large quantities in many countries across the world.
Mined asbestos only represented a small proportion of the asbestos used in Australia (about 5%) and the bulk was imported. The majority of asbestos (90%) used throughout the world, including Australia, was white asbestos.
National asbestos ban
In Australia, asbestos cement materials were first manufactured in the 1920's and were commonly used in the manufacture of residential building materials from the mid-1940's until the late 1980's. During the 1980's, asbestos cement materials were phased out in favour of asbestos-free products
Australia banned the use or import of blue and brown asbestos or asbestos products in the mid-1980s, and banned all manufacture or import of white asbestos products in December 2003. From 31 December 2003, the total ban on manufacture, use, reuse, import, transport, storage or sale of all forms of asbestos came into force.
Asbestos fibres are strong, heat resistant and have insulating properties. Clumps of mined asbestos can be broken down in to loose fibres or fibre bundles, and can be mixed with other materials, such as cement, to produce a variety of building products. Up to 90% of the asbestos produced in or imported into Australia was used for the manufacture of building products, especially asbestos cement materials.
Asbestos fibres are not visible to the naked eye. They are very light, remain airborne for a long time, and can be carried by wind and air currents over large distances.
Asbestos fibres can be found in the air from the breakdown of natural asbestos deposits and manufactured asbestos products. Once airborne, small fibres may remain suspended in the air for some time and can be carried long distances by wind before settling down. Large fibres and particles tend to settle more quickly. Asbestos fibres do not dissolve in water or move through soil. They are generally not broken down to other compounds and remain virtually unchanged over long periods.