Asbestos and Health: Understanding the Risks and Precautions

31 Jul, 2022

This article outlines the severe health risks associated with asbestos, including mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer. It highlights the importance of taking safety measures when dealing with suspected asbestos materials and underlines the need for professional management. The text discusses the legal aspects of asbestos management in New Zealand under the Health and Safety at Work (Asbestos) Regulations 2016. Finally, it stresses ongoing vigilance, education, and early detection for effective management and minimization of asbestos exposure.

Health Risks Associated with Asbestos

Asbestos, once a ubiquitous building material in New Zealand and worldwide, is now known for its severe health risks. This naturally occurring mineral, lauded for its fire resistance, strength, and insulating properties, becomes a hazard when it breaks down into microscopic fibres that can be inhaled.

Asbestos exposure can lead to a range of serious health conditions. At the forefront of these is mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer that primarily affects the lining of the lungs and the abdomen. Mesothelioma is almost exclusively linked to asbestos exposure and can take decades to develop, making it particularly insidious.

Another disease linked to asbestos is asbestosis, a chronic lung condition caused by inhaling asbestos fibres. As these fibres embed themselves in lung tissue, they cause scarring and stiffening, leading to breathing difficulties and, in severe cases, heart failure.

Lung cancer is also a risk, particularly for those who've had prolonged exposure to asbestos. Like mesothelioma, the latency period can be long, with the disease often developing many years after initial exposure. Those who smoke and are exposed to asbestos have a significantly increased risk of developing lung cancer.

Safety Measures When Dealing with Asbestos

Given the severe health risks associated with asbestos, it's crucial to take appropriate safety measures when dealing with materials that might contain asbestos. Whether you're a professional in the field or a homeowner suspecting asbestos in your property, there are precautions you can take to protect yourself and others.

Firstly, if you suspect the presence of asbestos, do not attempt to handle the material yourself. Asbestos is most hazardous when disturbed, as this can release the harmful fibres into the air. Always consult a professional who has the necessary training and equipment to manage asbestos safely.

In terms of personal protection, professionals dealing with asbestos should wear a respirator that filters out asbestos fibres, along with disposable coveralls, gloves, and eye protection. It's also essential to decontaminate all equipment and clothing after use to prevent further spread of asbestos fibres.

For homeowners, the most important safety measure is to avoid disturbing suspected asbestos materials. This includes refraining from drilling, sanding, or cutting into these materials. If you're planning any home renovations or DIY activities, always consult a professional if you suspect the presence of asbestos.

Professional Asbestos Management

Professional asbestos management is a multi-step process designed to identify, assess, and manage asbestos materials in a safe and effective manner. This process involves a thorough understanding of asbestos, its potential locations, and the risks it poses.

The first step is an asbestos survey, where a professional will inspect the property for potential ACMs. This typically involves visual inspection and sample collection, with samples then sent to a laboratory for testing. Only lab testing can definitively confirm the presence of asbestos.

Depending on the location, extent, and condition of the asbestos, the professional will then advise on the best course of action. This could range from leaving the material undisturbed, if it's in good condition and unlikely to be disturbed in the future, to complete removal of the material. It's important to remember that asbestos removal should always be conducted by licensed professionals.

Legal Aspects of Asbestos Management in New Zealand

In New Zealand, the management of asbestos is heavily regulated to protect individuals from potential health risks. Understanding the legal aspects of asbestos management can help ensure the safety of everyone involved, from homeowners to professional asbestos removers.

The key legislation in New Zealand concerning asbestos is the Health and Safety at Work (Asbestos) Regulations 2016. This regulation requires those who are conducting work involving asbestos to hold an asbestos removal licence. This ensures that only trained professionals handle asbestos, reducing the risk of improper handling and exposure.

For property owners, the regulation stipulates that if asbestos is identified or presumed to be present at the workplace, an asbestos management plan must be prepared and maintained. The plan should outline how the asbestos risks will be managed, including plans for regular reviews and emergency procedures in case of an unexpected incident.

It's worth noting that penalties for non-compliance with these regulations can be severe. This includes hefty fines and, in some cases, imprisonment. Therefore, it's crucial to ensure that any suspected asbestos in your property is handled by a licensed professional in compliance with the regulations.

Ongoing Vigilance and Asbestos Awareness

The management of asbestos doesn't end with its identification and removal. Ongoing vigilance and awareness are key to ensuring long-term safety. Even after asbestos materials have been removed or encapsulated, regular checks should be performed to ensure that the area remains safe and that no hidden asbestos materials have been overlooked.

Education and awareness are also crucial. Homeowners, property developers, and professionals alike should be aware of the risks associated with asbestos and how to manage them. This includes understanding where asbestos is commonly found, how to spot potential asbestos materials, and the importance of professional asbestos management.

Finally, remember that early detection and management of asbestos can significantly reduce the risk of exposure and the associated health risks. If you suspect the presence of asbestos in your property, don't hesitate to consult a professional. Asbestos is a serious health risk, but with the right knowledge and professional help, it can be managed effectively.

Where it is located

Asbestos materials that are unlikely to be disturbed and remain in a good condition are usually perfectly safe. Because of this, the location of the asbestos material and how likely the material can be damaged must be considered. For example, low level external materials such as fences, house baseboards or garden sheds are more likely to be distrubed by children playing in the garden than materials tucked away in a roof space or subfloor. Simply, asbestos materials that are within reach and easily accessible are more likely to be damaged accidently.

If you are in any doubt about a material or have doubts about its condition, call a licensed asbestos assessor to inspect the material. It isn’t expensive and it will give you peace of mind.

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