What are the health effects of asbestos exposure?

Asbestos is a risk to health only when it is inhaled (breathed in) as fine dust. The risk to health increases with the number of fibres inhaled and with frequency of exposure. When asbestos dust is inhaled, larger fibres tend to be cleared by protective mechanisms in the lungs and upper respiratory tract. The finer fibres are more difficult to remove, and may become trapped in the lungs, or move further into the body.

There are a number of diseases that can be related to inhaled asbestos fibres: pleural plaques (thickening of tissue around the lungs); asbestosis (scarring of lung tissue); mesothelioma (malignant tumours that can develop around the lungs or intestine). Smoking increases the risk of developing lung cancer following exposure to asbestos.

To date, most people who have developed asbestos-related diseases have been exposed to a relatively large number of fibres through their work (e.g. miners, builders).

Diseases related to the deposit and penetration of asbestos fibres can take a long time to develop after initial exposure to asbestos (i.e. at least 20 to 30 years after the first exposure). Not everyone exposed to asbestos will get an asbestos-related disease.

The table below indicates the low prevalence of mesothelioma for ACT residents when compared with more common forms of cancer:

Table 4: Age-standardised incidence rates for mesothelioma compared to other common cancers that affect both males and females in ACT residents in 2009*

Cancer Incidence per 100,000 population
Mesothelioma 2.5
Colorectal cancer 63.3
Melanoma of the skin 37.4
Lung 34.3

Source: ACT Cancer Registry (generated 25 June 2015)
(i) 2009 is the most recent year that finalised and published data are available for.
(ii) Three year average rates are presented.

Just because a person has been exposed to loose fill asbestos does not mean they will develop any asbestos related medical conditions.

For Further Information

  1. Check the list.
  2. Access supporting information, in particular:
  3. If you feel anxious or concerned access support through your General Practitioner, ACT Medicare Local on 6287 8066, Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.
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