"Asbestos in South Africa: Understanding the History, Ban, Legacy and Social Perceptions"

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Understanding, and making sense of Asbestos in South Africa.

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Industries - Construction, mining and manufacturing in South Africa

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Asbestos was once widely used in South Africa in various industries, including construction, mining, and manufacturing. The mineral was valued for its heat-resistant properties and was commonly used in insulation, roofing materials, and brake linings, among other applications.

However, the use of asbestos has been linked to serious health problems, including lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis. As a result, many countries, including South Africa, have banned the use of asbestos.

Asbestos History in South Africa

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In South Africa, asbestos mining began in the early 20th century and peaked in the 1970s. The country was one of the largest producers of asbestos in the world, and many mines were located in the Northern Cape, Limpopo, and Mpumalanga provinces.

The Ban on Asbestos in South Africa

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Despite the ban on asbestos, many buildings and structures in South Africa still contain asbestos-containing materials (ACMs). The government has implemented regulations to manage and remove ACMs, but the process has been slow and difficult, especially in rural areas.

The South African government has established the Asbestos Relief Trust (ART) to provide compensation to victims of asbestos-related diseases. The ART was set up in 2003 and has paid out millions of rand to claimants.

Legacy of Asbestos in South Africa

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Overall, the legacy of asbestos use in South Africa has been a tragic one, with thousands of workers and community members affected by exposure to the mineral. While efforts have been made to address the problem, much remains to be done to protect the health of current and future generations.

Social perceptions on Asbestos in South Africa

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 Asbestos has been a highly controversial issue in South Africa, and public perceptions about it have been mixed.

Many people in South Africa are aware of the dangers of asbestos and are concerned about its impact on public health. The use of asbestos in building materials was widespread in South Africa until the early 2000s, and many buildings and homes still contain asbestos-containing materials (ACMs). These ACMs can release dangerous asbestos fibres into the air when they are disturbed, and people who are exposed to these fibres can develop serious illnesses such as lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis.

As a result, there has been a strong public push for the removal of asbestos from buildings and homes across South Africa. Many advocacy groups and public health organizations have called for increased regulation and enforcement to ensure that people are not exposed to asbestos in their homes or workplaces. There have also been campaigns to educate the public about the dangers of asbestos and to encourage them to take steps to protect themselves from exposure.

At the same time, there are also people in South Africa who are sceptical about the dangers of asbestos or who believe that the risks have been exaggerated. Some people may be hesitant to remove asbestos from their homes or workplaces due to the perceived costs or inconvenience. 

What is Mesothelioma?

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Mesothelioma is a rare cancer caused by inhaling or ingesting asbestos. Tumours form 20-60 years after asbestos exposure and may develop in the lining of the lungs, abdomen, heart or testes. The life expectancy for most mesothelioma patients is approximately 12 months after diagnosis.

What is Asbestosis? (as-bes-TOE-sis)

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Asbestosis is a chronic (long-term) lung condition caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos.

Asbestos is a general term for a group of minerals made of microscopic fibres. In the past, it was widely used in construction.

Asbestos can be very dangerous. It does not present a health risk if it is undisturbed, but if material containing asbestos is chipped, drilled, broken or allowed to deteriorate, it can release a fine dust that contains asbestos fibres.

When the dust is breathed in, the asbestos fibres enter the lungs and can gradually damage them over time. 

May we remove, encapsulated Asbestos 

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Encapsulation of an Asbestos usually involves the application of two coats of an Elastomeric Paint which in some case is not normally UV resistant. In many instances Asbestos is treated by unapproved Contractors. This does create other issues. 

When you encapsulate asbestos correctly with a registered and approved Asbestos contractor it prevents the release of fibres. It will not, however prevent fibre release if the material is more significantly damaged.   

If encapsulation was opted for the asbestos it should be placed on a register by an approved registered asbestos removal contractor. A copy of this register will be provided to you for your home. Keeping in mind that you will need to place it with your homes other information. i.e. Electrical CoC etc.. 

Thus, keep in mind when you have opted for encapsulation that you will need to ensure that annual inspections is advised to over inspect the encapsulated asbestos. So keep this in mind as this will be an ongoing cost relating to its management and annual re-inspection by an approved Licensed Asbestos Contractor. 

Who may remove Asbestos panels, duct and other material?

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Your are not allowed to work on or with Asbestos if you are not approved! 

The very different types of Asbestos 

Actinolite Asbestos

Actinolite asbestos is generally dark in colour and has sharp, needle like fibbers that when airborne, can be easily inhaled. Actinolite is made up of other minerals including calcium, magnesium, iron, and silicon. Actinolite was previously used in products such as cement, insulation materials, paints, sealants and drywall.

Amosite Asbestos

Amosite asbestos, also known as brown asbestos, is considered one of the most hazardous types of asbestos. Primarily mined in South Africa, amosite is characterized by sharp, brittle, needle-like fibres that can be easily inhaled. Amosite makes up about five percent of asbestos materials used in buildings in the United States making it the second most commonly used type of asbestos next to chrysotile.

Amosite can be found in the following products:

  • Cement
  • Chemical insulation
  • Electrical insulation
  • Fire protection
  • Gaskets
  • Insulation boards
  • Plumbing insulation
  • Roofing
  • Thermal insulation
  • Tiles

Anthophyllite Asbestos

Like other types of asbestos in the amphibole family, anthophyllite is composed of long, needle-like fibres that can be easily inhaled into the lungs. Anthophyllite can range from brown to yellowish in colour and is composed mainly of magnesium and iron. One of the more rare forms of asbestos, anthophyllite was not used as often in consumer products, but can be found in some cement and insulation materials.

Crocidolite Asbestos

Crocidolite asbestos, also known as blue asbestos, is considered the most hazardous type of asbestos in the amphibole family. Crocidolite is made up of extremely fine sharp fibers that are particularly easy to inhale. Studies show that crocidolite is so hazardous, it may be responsible for more illnesses and deaths than any other type of asbestos.

Crocidolite was rarely used in commercial products because it was found to be much less heat resistant than other types of asbestos. Crocidolite was used in products such as cement, tiles and insulation materials.

Tremolite Asbestos

Tremolite asbestos is known for its heat resistant properties and can also be woven into fabric. Like other asbestos in the amphibole family, tremolite has sharp fibers that can easily be inhaled or ingested. Tremolite is no longer mined and is responsible for many cases of asbestos-related cancer and asbestos diseases. Tremolite ranges in color from a milky white to a dark green and is found in other minerals such as talc and vermiculite. Tremolite was previously used in a variety of products such as paint, sealants, insulation, roofing and plumbing materials.

Serpentine Mineral Family

Chrysotile asbestos is the only known type of asbestos that belongs to the serpentine family. Also known as white asbestos, this variety is made up of curly fibers and has a layered structure.

Chrysotile Asbestos

Chrysotile asbestos is the most commonly used variety of asbestos, comprising 90 to 95 percent of asbestos used in buildings in the United States. Hailed for its heat resistant properties and flexible fibers that can be woven into fabric, chrysotile asbestos is used in a variety of asbestos insulation and fireproofing products.

Chrysotile can be found in the following products:

  • Asphalt
  • Brake lining
  • Brake pads
  • Cement
  • Clutches
  • Disk pads
  • Gaskets
  • Plastics
  • Roofing materials
  • Rubber
  • Textiles

Still mined today in Canada, Russia and Italy, there is continuing controversy between health care professionals and the companies that continue to export it. These companies claim that the chrysotile mined today is safe because it is only used in dense and non-friable products and is "encapsulated in a matrix of either cement or resin." Health care professionals maintain that all forms of asbestos are a carcinogenic and no level of exposure is safe. Because it is the most widely used, chrysotile accounts for the majority of cases of mesothelioma and asbestos diseases including pleural mesothelioma.

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