Breaking down asbestos with science


In cladding, roofing, and drainage pipes, insulation, textured ceilings and sprayed-on wall surfaces, even vehicle brakes and clutches, and many products and appliances like oven gloves and fire blankets, simmer mats and ironing board pads, asbestos can appear anywhere across the entire home.

Asbestos is a proven human carcinogen, and all forms of asbestos can cause cancer. Thankfully we have learnt about the effects of asbestos today, but until around the mid-1980s the stuff was imported and used widely. It’s now illegal to import chrysotile (white), amosite (brown), and crocidolite (blue) asbestos fibres in their raw states, and any manufactured items that might contain asbestos.

The science behind asbestos is unsettling. The Ministry of Health website says “inhaling significant quantities of airborne asbestos causes asbestosis, mesothelioma, plaques, and cancer of the lung, larynx and ovary.

“The main way people are exposed to asbestos is by breathing in air that contains asbestos fibres. Small levels of asbestos fibres occur naturally in air, including as a result of weathering breaking down asbestos-containing materials, windblown soil from hazardous waste sites or deterioration of motor vehicle clutches and brakes.”

The Ministry of Environment website recently shared interesting developments in the asbestos world – that the structure of asbestos fibres change when exposed to natural organisms such as fungi. This “may lead to a reduction in carcinogenicity and eventual break down,” the article said.

The research comes from Unitec’s Environmental Solutions Research Centre (ESRC) founded in 2019 by Dr Terri-Ann Berry. The centre focuses on “exploring ways to reduce the harmful impacts caused by asbestos” and hopes to further understand bioremediation processes to reduce the amount of asbestos contaminated soil in New Zealand.

“Bioremediating is a process where microorganisms like fungi are used to break down environmental pollutants like asbestos,” the site continues.

Visit the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Environment websites for more information.