Asbestos Wonder Fiber Serial Killer

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that worldwide there are more than 100 000 asbestos related deaths per year and that, currently, 125 million workers are exposed to the deadly fibre

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous material that, due to its fire protection and thermal insulation properties, has been extensively used in buildings. Despite its excellent properties, asbestos is also a serious hazard to health and causes many thousands of deaths every year, globally. Although asbestos is now banned in South Africa and other countries, the legacy of asbestos, hidden in various shapes and forms, will remain with us for many years to come, threatening lives at home and at work.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that worldwide there are more than 100 000 asbestos related deaths per year and that, currently, 125 million workers are exposed to the deadly fibre. In the United Kingdom, the death toll is estimated at approximately 3 500 per year and, in the USA, 10 000 per year. This is nothing less than a global epidemic! In South Africa about 200 mesothelioma cases are reported per year but this is most likely an underestimate considering the magnitude of mining and processing that took place in a country that was a leading global supplier of all types of asbestos.

Asbestos fibres inhaled into the lungs may cause a range of serious lung diseases, including asbestosis (scarring of the lung), lung cancer and mesothelioma (a malignant and fatal tumour that grows on the lining of the lung). Early symptoms of disease may include chest pain and shortness of breath, leading in more advanced stages, to respiratory failure, cardiac arrest and death. What is important to remember is that it may take 15 to 50 years from first contact with the asbestos fibre for disease to develop. During this long “dormant” period no symptoms are experienced and when the disease is diagnosed it is fatal, as there is no cure.

Asbestos is a risk to health only when the fibres are dispersed in the air and inhaled into the lungs. When asbestos is contained within another material and fibres are not liberated, the risk to health is minimal., However, any work or process that disturbs the fabric of the asbestos-containing material (ACM) and that releases fibres, such as drilling, cutting, high pressure cleaning, demolishing or even natural deterioration and weathering of the ACM, introduces a serious threat to human health. Materials that are made from pure asbestos or that contain high percentages of asbestos, such as insulation and lagging material, are far more dangerous than low percentage ACMs, such as asbestos-cement products.

Don’t start work if:

  • You are unsure or suspect that the material you will work on might contain asbestos;
  • Asbestos is present but you have not been trained to work safely with it and you don’t have the proper safety equipment;
  • You suspect that high risk material (e.g. lagging, insulation material, sprayed coatings) is present – only approved asbestos contractors can work on these.

Work with asbestos only if:

  • You have been properly trained;
  • The risk to health has been assessed and there is a written work plan;
  • You have the correct equipment and tools to minimise dust, such as:
  1. Means to wet the material
  2. Hand tools instead of power tools
  3. Vacuum cleaner with the correct dust filtering system
  4. Appropriate means of decontamination and waste disposal
  • You have the correct protective equipment, such as:
  1. A properly fitted and suitable respirator
  2. Suitable disposable gloves and overalls
  3. Boots without laces, or disposable boot cover


  • Create dust
  • Use compressed air for cleaning
  • Smoke, eat or drink in the work area
  • Disturb asbestos if you can help it!

Who can I call for advice?

The Occupational Hygiene Section of the NIOH provides a comprehensive range of asbestos-related services and advice throughout Southern Africa, including consultation, training, asbestos surveys, monitoring and evaluation. Contact details are provided below. The NIOH Electron Microscopy Unit also examines air samples from workplaces and the environment along with bulk materials are analysed.

Occupational Hygiene
Mr Gabriel Mizan
Tel: +27(0)11-712-6457
Fax: +27(0)11-712-6405

Electron Microscopy
Prof. Jim Phillips
Tel: +27-(0)11-712-6473
Fax: +27-(0)11-712-6450