Daze of Disruption Magazine

What is asbestos? Why it’s important to handle asbestos safely? How to handle and dispose of asbestos?

The Work Health and Safety Act (WHS Act) and Safe Work Australia’s Codes of Practice outline a fundamental obligation: minimizing or eliminating risks in demolition work for structures or buildings.

Even in smaller projects like house demolitions, it falls on demolition contractors to guarantee minimal risk exposure for workers. If the demolition involves handling hazardous materials, it must comply with regulations, especially concerning asbestos, which has specific rules governing its removal.

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What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was once widely used in various industries for its desirable properties such as heat resistance, strength, and insulating abilities. It consists of thin, microscopic fibres that can easily become airborne and be inhaled into the lungs.

Despite its usefulness, asbestos is highly toxic and poses significant health risks. Prolonged exposure to asbestos fibres can cause serious illnesses including lung cancer, mesothelioma (a rare form of cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, chest, or abdomen), and asbestosis (a chronic lung condition caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibres).

Due to its hazardous nature, many countries have banned or heavily regulated the use of asbestos. However, it remains present in some older buildings, insulation materials, and various industrial products. Proper precautions are necessary when dealing with asbestos-containing materials to prevent exposure and minimize health risks.

asbestos chrysotile fibers that cause lung disease, COPD, lung cancer, mesothelioma

Why it’s important to handle asbestos safely?

Handling asbestos safely is crucial due to the severe health risks associated with exposure to its fibres. Here are some reasons why it’s important:

  1. Health Risks: Asbestos exposure can lead to serious and potentially fatal illnesses such as lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis. These diseases often develop years or even decades after exposure, making prevention of exposure essential.
  2. Airborne Fibers: Asbestos fibres are microscopic and can become airborne easily when asbestos-containing materials are disturbed or damaged. Once airborne, these fibres can be inhaled into the lungs, where they can cause damage over time.
  3. Risk of Contamination: Improper handling of asbestos-containing materials can result in the contamination of work areas, equipment, clothing, and even bystanders. Contamination can lead to further exposure risks for individuals who come into contact with contaminated surfaces or materials.
  4. Legal and Regulatory Compliance: Many countries have strict regulations regarding the handling, removal, and disposal of asbestos-containing materials. Failure to comply with these regulations can result in legal consequences, fines, and liabilities.
  5. Environmental Impact: Improper handling and disposal of asbestos can also pose risks to the environment. Asbestos fibres released into the air or water can potentially impact ecosystems and wildlife.

To ensure safety when dealing with asbestos, it’s essential to follow proper procedures for handling, removal, and disposal, as well as to use appropriate protective equipment and measures to minimize exposure risks. This includes employing trained professionals and adhering to regulatory guidelines and best practices.

How to handle and dispose of asbestos

Handling and disposing of asbestos is a serious matter that requires expertise and caution. Here are some important steps to follow:

  1. Leave it to the Professionals: Asbestos is extremely hazardous, and only licensed asbestos abatement professionals should handle it. Attempting to remove or disturb asbestos-containing materials yourself can lead to serious health risks.
  2. Prevent Fiber Release: If you encounter asbestos in your home, avoid disturbing it. Instead, gently spray it with water to prevent the release of fibres until a professional can assess the situation.
  3. Compliance with Laws: Hiring licensed professionals ensures compliance with federal and state regulations governing asbestos handling and disposal. Attempting to handle asbestos on your own can result in legal penalties.
  4. Proper Planning: Professionals assess the size and scope of the abatement project and obtain necessary permits. Proper planning is crucial for ensuring the safety of the workers and the community.
  5. Work Area Preparation: The work area is sealed off with plastic sheeting, and negative air pressure units are used to prevent contamination. Warning signs are posted, and surfaces not involved in the abatement are covered to contain any asbestos fibres.
  6. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Workers wear N-100 or P-100 respirators and protective clothing to minimize exposure to asbestos fibres.
  7. Safety Protocols: HVAC systems are disabled to prevent the circulation of asbestos fibres. Wet wipes or HEPA vacuums are used to clean surfaces and control dust.
  8. Asbestos Waste Handling: Asbestos-containing materials are wetted before removal, double bagged in 6-millimeter plastic bags, and placed in leak-tight containers with proper labelling. Disposal is only permitted in designated asbestos waste landfills.
  9. Decontamination Units: Enclosed decontamination systems are set up to allow workers to safely remove contaminated clothing and equipment.
  10. Decontamination Procedures: Specific steps are followed to safely remove contaminated protective gear, minimizing the risk of exposure to asbestos.

How does asbestos recycling work?

Asbestos, once a menace, can now be transformed into harmless materials like glass or porcelain through advanced recycling methods. These techniques, pioneered by private firms and the U.S. Department of Energy, involve either intense heating using microwave thermal treatments or rapid milling. Though effective, these processes can be intricate and costly.

Several approaches exist for recycling asbestos:

These methods can reduce asbestos waste volume by 50% to 99.7%, depending on the product recycled. This reduction benefits landfills, as disposal costs are based on volume.

The resulting non-hazardous materials can either be sent to regular landfills or used in construction, as packing material, or concrete aggregate.

Benefits of Asbestos Recycling

Despite its benefits, asbestos recycling is currently about three times more expensive than traditional disposal. However, this cost may be offset by selling the recycled materials.

While asbestos recycling is not yet widely available to the public in the U.S., ongoing efforts by private firms and government agencies aim to make it more accessible and affordable. As regulated disposal sites become scarcer, asbestos recycling will become increasingly vital.

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