Recreation in areas of naturally occurring asbestos factsheet
Guidance for land managers for reducing potential asbestos exposure to people undertaking recreational activities in areas identified with a high probability of naturally occurring asbestos.
Some key facts:
- Asbestos occurs in some rocks and soils as a natural mineral.
- Some recreational activities can generate dust.
- Asbestos fibres that are breathed in pose a risk to health.
- The risk of developing an asbestos-related disease depends on how many fibres have been breathed in and for how long, fibre type, whether you smoke and age at first exposure
- There are practical steps you can undertake to reduce your exposure to naturally occurring asbestos.
What is naturally occurring asbestos (NOA)?
Naturally occurring asbestos (NOA) is asbestos minerals found naturally in association with geological deposits including rock, sediment, or soil. Asbestos minerals are commonly found around the world in ultramafic rock formations including serpentinite (chrysotile [white]) and amphibole (actinolite, amosite [brown], anthophyllite, crocidolite [blue] and tremolite) as well as in the soils where these rock types are located.
Less than 1% of NSW has rock types with the potential to contain significant amounts of NOA. Depending on the probability of naturally occurring asbestos being present, NSW has been mapped into low, medium, or high potential regions. The map is only indicative and based on knowledge at the time of writing. Only testing will confirm if NOA is present onsite.
Asbestos and health
Asbestos is not a risk if it is undisturbed as only asbestos fibres that are breathed in pose a risk to health. People living in a NOA area will have a slight risk of asbestos related disease and this risk may be greater than for people not living in a NOA area. The risk of developing an asbestos-related disease varies from person to person and depends on how many fibres have been breathed in and for how long, fibre type, whether you smoke and age at first exposure.
We are all exposed to very low levels of asbestos in the air we breathe. There are usually between 10 and 200 asbestos fibres in every 1000 litres of air. This means we breathe in up to 3000 asbestos fibres a day . Despite this very few people experience ill effects from such asbestos exposure.
People can be exposed to higher levels of asbestos at some times in their lives; for example in their workplace, community or home. Evidence of non-occupational exposure increasing the risk of asbestos-related disease is very limited. A small increase in risk cannot be excluded, but a large increase in risk is unlikely.
Most people who develop asbestos-related diseases in Australia have had exposure to much higher levels of asbestos fibres through working directly with asbestos or asbestos products. Family members of these workers have also been known to develop asbestos-related diseases because the workers carried asbestos fibres home on their clothing, skin and hair.
While there is only a low chance of developing an asbestos-related disease from non-occupational exposure to asbestos, it remains very important to take precautions to minimise exposure.
There are a number of practical measures you can undertake (where feasible) as described in this fact sheet to reduce your risk of exposure.
One of the most important things you can do to reduce your risk is quit smoking.
How do risks arise in recreational areas?
Along with natural weathering processes such as erosion, a variety of recreational activities can result in the generation of dust. Here are some examples:
- driving, riding (vehicles, horses, bicycles, motorcycles, etc) running or walking over unpaved roads, trails, and soils where excessive dust can be generated
- excavating: digging, shovelling, using backhoes, fossicking, etc
- sporting activities (playing football, cricket, etc.) on exposed dusty areas of NOA
- camping and related activities on exposed dusty areas of NOA.
What can we do to reduce exposure to NOA in recreational areas?
While the health risk from infrequent recreational activities in areas containing NOA may be very low, it is prudent to take practical measures to reduce potential exposures.
Before planning the location of new recreational areas, consider the conditions:
- determine whether NOA is present in the proposed recreational area. The naturally occurring regional classifications and map for NSW can be found at HACA. However, as these maps are only indicative, it may be useful to get a confirmatory test for NOA and seek expert advice if necessary.
In areas where NOA is confirmed some simple steps are recommended, and they include but are not limited to:
- postponement or restriction of activities on particularly windy days, especially in dry, dusty conditions
- when undertaking major earth works and construction, develop and implement an NOA asbestos management plan to minimise exposure risk
- cover exposed areas of NOA containing rock and soil with clean soil, rock, vegetation or other material if practicable, particularly in areas of high usage or disturbance:
- pave over unpaved walkways, driveways, or roadways containing NOA
- landscape areas with vegetation, such as a groundcover of plants tolerant of NOA, and/or add a layer of organic mulch or soil free of NOA. Water plants often until they are established to minimise erosion and maintain the cover.
In areas thought to have a high probability of NOA, the following steps are recommended:
- relocate outdoor activities to areas that do not contain NOA
- ensure recreational areas are well marked and relevant information is made available to residents or visitors
- limit activities that generate dust such as driving, riding (vehicles, motorcycles, horses, bicycles) on unpaved roads, trails and soils, fossicking, etc
- postpone or restrict activities on particularly windy days, especially in dry, dusty conditions
- play areas should have a well-maintained ground covering, such as wood chips, grass, mulch, sand, pea gravel, asphalt, shredded rubber, rubber mats, etc
- avoid handling or disturbing loose asbestos-containing rocks and soils. It is best to discourage camping or picnicking in those areas
- when driving on unsealed or unpaved roads:
- limit vehicle speed to minimise dust generation
- close vehicle windows and put air on recirculate.
For vehicles leaving a dusty, high probability NOA area:
- limit tracking dust into vehicles through removing outerwear or shoes and placing them in a sealed plastic bag to be washed or wiped with wet rags as soon as practicable
- limit pets’ access to known NOA locations as they may track dust into vehicle
- do not use compressed air for cleaning vehicles; rather, hand-wash with water and use damp cloths for the interiors.
 enHealth (2012) Asbestos – A guide for householders and the general public
In NSW, the government agencies with particular responsibilities for asbestos safety have collaborated to compile information and guidance.
Other useful links: