Brief History of Asbestos in Australia
In Australia before 1939, more white asbestos (Chrysotile) than amphibole (blue/brown) asbestos was mined. After the Wittenoom mine opened in Western Australia blue asbestos (Crocidolite) began to dominate production until this mine closed in 1966.
Until 1983 New South Wales produced the most chrysotile from Woodsreef and Baryulgil mines along with some smaller sites. There were a number of small mines located around the country also producing asbestos with known sites at Robertstown and Truro in South Australia and the Disputed Creek1 mine in the Northern Territory
Australian demand for asbestos was great enough to warrant importation of additional material. The main sources of raw asbestos imports were from Canada (chrysotile) and South Africa (crocidolite and amosite). Consumption peaked in the mid 1970’s at which time asbestos was being used in some form of building product in every new building. In addition to imports of asbestos fibre for use in local manufacturing, Australia also imported many manufactured products, including asbestos cement, asbestos rope and fabric, asbestos joint putty and millboard, asbestos friction materials and gaskets. Some overseas sites still offer asbestos products for sale such as gaskets, seals, woven textile and asbestos cement sheeting.
In the late 1960s and early 1970’s asbestos cement usage was widespread. It was a standard building material in the majority of buildings as wall linings to wet areas and externally as eaves/soffits/verandah ceiling linings.
Following the closing of the Wittenoom mine in 1966, Australian asbestos production and exports declined and imports of chrysotile also started to decline.
By the late 1970’s crocidolite and amosite were gradually being phased out of building materials.
This continued until the early 1980’s when chrysotile usage in building products also tapered off. This occurred until approximately 1984 when asbestos usage in production (as far as can be ascertained) for sheeting was ceased in Australia. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the date may be later than that but the author hasn’t found any locally made proven asbestos cement sheet date stamped later than 1984.
Other products such as pipes were still manufactured using asbestos until about 1989. Some imported building products such as vermiculite from Canada and ceiling tiles from Asia also contained asbestos after this date. Old stocks of asbestos cement building products were available after 1989 until stocks were exhausted (particularly pipe and drain surrounds).
Electrical boards and boxes were sometimes re-used. For example an asbestos based resin board was found in use as the mounting board for the sprinkler system controls of a new building. Recently imported prefabricated electrical installations containing asbestos cement sheeting arrived (2012) in Gladstone. Queensland
Ships, trains, aircraft and cars constructed or imported until 2003 and many types of machinery contained various forms of asbestos. CSIRO have identified over 3000 different asbestos products in use in Australia.
White (Chrysotile) asbestos was still able to be imported into Australia until December 2003 when it was finally banned. It was used most commonly until this time as gaskets, brake linings, wiring insulation, seals etc. You could still go to your local car spare parts shop in that year and buy off the shelf new head and engine gasket kits for your car along with brake shoes or pads containing asbestos. Stock could still be found of these types of gaskets in muffler and exhaust shops in 2007. These type of asbestos containing materials can still be found on vehicle components in wrecking yards today.
More comprehensive histories of Asbestos in Australia can be found in the two books “Asbestos House” and “Killer Company”.