Asbestos, the hidden killer

Paul Muchemi holds up a piece of asbestos.

Despite being banned from use in South Africa from 2001, the silent killer remains hidden in our town.

Asbestos was a much favoured building material, due to its fire resistancing and thermal insulating properties.

Traces of the material can still be found in buildings which were built in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

Occupational Hygienist, Paul Muchemi, said it was therefore of the utmost importance to check one’s home or building for the material.

“People in the past didn’t know just how dangerous it was, using it liberally in the construction of homes and buildings.”

Most commonly it was used in roofing, guttering, piping, lagging, gasket making, ceiling boards, tiles, fire insulation boards and fencing materials.

“While it is in good condition, there is no danger to residents. But, if it starts breaking down, people face serious health risks,” said Muchemi.

When it starts deteriorating, asbestos fibres are inhaled into the lungs and may cause a range of serious lung diseases, including asbestosis (which is scarring of the lung), lung cancer and mesothelioma which is a malignant and fatal tumour that grows on the lining of the lung.

Early symptoms of this disease are chest pains and shortness of breath. In more advanced stages, you have respiratory failure, cardiac arrest and eventually death.

“If it is dissolved in water, it can get into your stomach lining and cause severe issues with your gut.

Muchema explained asbestos could find its way into water supplies through illegal dumping.

“People might want to get rid of it, throw the material on the side of the road. The asbestos material could then land in the road itself, with cars riding over it and crushing it. The asbestos fibres can either

then blow or wash into storm water drains, which eventually land up in our water supply.”

Through this threat, he urged people who had asbestos in their homes or offices to have it removed by an officially registered contractor who dealt with the removal of asbestos material.

“The great danger lies in people unknowningly coming into contact with asbestos.”

This danger escalated when a person did renovations to their home.

“It is common for people to expand their homes, break a ceiling or change a roof. But if you are not trained to handle asbestos, you will create a big hazard to yourself and unsuspecting people in the surrounding area,” Muchema said.

Asbestos in buildings can be identified in either friable form (such as crumbled insulation material) or more often, hidden within another material (such as asbestos cement products).

The fibres might be visible in the friable form, but are seldom seen in unbroken asbestos cement.

Muchema explained that in both cases, it was not always possible to identify asbestos with certainty by visual examination alone.

“If you are in doubt, it is important to take it to a laboratory for testing.”

If one was uncertain about asbestos in their homes or offices, but there was no damage to the structures, Muchema stated there was no immediate need for concern.

But concluded it was of the utmost importance to always be cautious and vigilant when there was visible damage to any asbestos products.

Quinton Boucher

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