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Asbestos is a generic term applied to some mineral silicates of the serpentine and amphibole groups, whose characteristic feature is to crystallise in fibrous form.

There are many members of the family - common among these are blue asbestos (crocidolite), white (chrysotile) and brown or grey asbestos (amosite). Other forms of asbestos include anthophyllite which was used mainly in Finland. However tremolite, said to be part of the amphibole asbestos group, was used in some commercial talcs in small quantities and is also a contaminant of other asbestos types, e.g. chrysotile (white asbestos).

The three most common types of asbestos that were mainly used in a wide range of products are:

  • Chrysotile (white asbestos)
  • Crocidolite (blue asbestos)
  • Amosite (brown or grey asbestos)

Until the late 1960s, the Australian industry used both serpentine (75%) and amphibole (25%) asbestos. Subsequently, the use of chrysotile increased to approximately 95% whilst blue and grey asbestos declined to 5%.

Asbestos is one of the most useful and versatile minerals known to man mainly because of its unique properties, flexibility, tensile strength, insulation (from heat and electricity) and chemical inertness. It is the only natural mineral that can be spun and woven like cotton or wool into useful fibres and fabrics.
The importation of Asbestos will cease at the end of 2003 however, there will be limited exceptions for the approved use of asbestos products in highly specialized industries.


Large deposits of asbestos were discovered in the Ural Mountains in the Soviet, in the Alps of Northern Italy, Canada, USA, South Africa and Rhodesia. In Australia, large deposits of crocidolite were found in the North of Western Australia at Wittenoom Gorge and some deposits of white asbestos were mined in Northern New South Wales (Barraba and Baryulgil).


More than 3000 asbestos products and their uses have been identified. Most Australian homes contain asbestos products in one form or another. Companies like James Hardie, Colonial Sugar Refinery Limited (CSR) and Wunderlich, manufactured most of the asbestos products that have been used in thousands of commercial and private buildings in Australia.

Some other uses of asbestos include fencing, asbestos pipes, thermal insulation, fire proofing, as an additive in paints and sealants, in textiles such as felts and theatre curtains, in gaskets, and in friction products like brake linings, and clutches.

During the peak building years, i.e. 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, asbestos found its way into most public buildings, for example hospitals, schools, libraries, office blocks and factories. Workplaces such as ships' engine rooms and power stations were heavily insulated with sprayed limpet asbestos.

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