There are two families of asbestos — Serpentine and Amphibole. While the first sounds more sinister, like an evil Garden of Eden tempter, it may be less harmful than the types found in the latter family. But make no mistake; exposure to all asbestos fibres can be harmful and potentially fatal in the long term.
Let’s take a closer look at the different types of asbestos – commonly identified by their colours – and the potential health-related risks of exposure.
Chrysotile (white asbestos)
The only member of the Serpentine family, chrysotile or white asbestos was mined in Australia in the early to mid-1900s.
Valued for its tensile strength, heat resistance, pliable nature and versatility, white asbestos was commonly used in corrugated roof sheeting, ceiling and wall sheeting, pipe insulation, and in wet areas.
Amosite (brown asbestos)
The first member of the Amphibole family, brown asbestos was often used in thermal insulation, ceiling tiles, cement sheeting and pipes.
It was mined in South Africa, which is where the name amosite came from – a partial acronym for ‘Asbestos Mines of South Africa’.
Crocidolite (blue asbestos)
Blue asbestos is also part of the Amphibole family, and was used in many of the same products as brown asbestos, with more application variation at times. At one time, Kent’s cigarettes actually used blue asbestos as a filter, believe it or not.
South Africa, Australia and Bolivia were the main mining locations of crocidolite. Many countries have since banned the use of blue and brown asbestos from all building materials.
Tremolite, Anthophyllite, and Actinolite
These forms of asbestos are indirect contaminants of other mining ventures and were not mined for commercial purposes.
The potential health risks
According to the US National Cancer Institute, all forms of asbestos are considered to be potentially hazardous to health. Exposure to asbestos fibres may increase the risk of diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma.
AsbestosWise states that chrysotile may pose less of a health risk due the shape of the fibres, which may not penetrate the lungs as easily. Amphibole asbestos fibres may pose a greater risk than other types, particularly when it comes to mesothelioma. According to the Institute, this may be because they stay in the lungs longer.
Many of these forms of asbestos are still commonly found in Australian buildings constructed pre-1990. If you’d like to know if your home has asbestos materials, an inspection and asbestos testing by a licensed professional can identify which types of asbestos are present and where they are.