Who is at risk of developing asbestos-related diseases?

A guide for householders and the general public

Page last updated: 06 March 2013

Who is at risk of developing asbestos-related diseases?

We are all exposed to low levels of asbestos in the air we breathe every day. Ambient or background air usually contains between 10 and 200 asbestos fibres in every 1000 litres (or cubic metre) of air (equivalent to 0.01 to 0.20 fibres per litre of air). However, most people do not become ill from this exposure, because the levels of asbestos present in the environment are very low. Most people are also exposed to higher levels of asbestos at some time in their lives; for example, in their workplace, community or home. However, for most people, this kind of infrequent exposure is also unlikely to result in any ill effects.

Most people who develop asbestos-related diseases have worked on jobs where they frequently breathed in large amounts of asbestos fibres. For example, in the past, construction workers using unsafe practices may have frequently encountered asbestos fibre levels well above background levels. The current regulated workplace limit (over an eight-hour period) is 100 fibres per litre of air (which is between 500 and 10 000 times background levels). In the past, workers in asbestos milling or mining often encountered fibre concentrations a million times higher than background levels.

Family members of exposed workers or those who lived close to active asbestos mines (Australia now has none) are also at risk. An exposed worker or home renovator can carry asbestos fibres on their clothing, boots, skin and hair and tools. Householders should be alert to ensure family members are not exposed to these fibres.

Although there is no absolutely safe level of exposure to asbestos fibres, occasional exposure to low levels of fibres poses only a low risk to your health.

A very small number of asbestos-related disease cases occur each year in people who have not worked with asbestos products. The low number of cases makes it difficult to determine the exact cause of the disease or the likely exposure event, but unsafe handling of asbestos materials in the home may have contributed to some of these cases.

The safety precautions for handling asbestos products described in this guide are designed to reduce your risk to a very low level (see: "Asbestos-Related Risk").