Renovating a home which contains asbestos building products can pose a risk to yourself and your loved ones. We talk you through identifying whether your home contains asbestos, and what to do if you find it.
Asbestos has been used as a building material in many Australian homes. Between 1920 and 1985, asbestos building products were an affordable, long-lasting, fire-retardant and easy to use building material. It’s estimated that one in three houses built during this era contains asbestos building materials.
Most of the main manufacturing companies began phasing asbestos out of home building products in the early-1980s, once the dangers of asbestos became well known. Nevertheless, many houses still contain asbestos building products, and there has been no real national campaign to try and identify and eradicate these products from people’s homes.
Asbestos building products pose little risk if they are in good condition and are left undisturbed. However, if asbestos building materials are cut, broken, or removed, they can release microscopic asbestos fibres into the air.
Anyone who breathes in these fibres is at risk of developing an asbestos related disease. While the risk of developing a disease is low, there is no ‘safe’ level of exposure to asbestos, and every exposure increases a person’s risk of developing a disease. Think of it like cigarette smoking – the more cigarettes a person smokes in their life, the higher their risk of developing lung cancer.
The key is therefore to be aware of the risks posed by asbestos, and to do everything you can minimise any exposure to yourself and others.
What to look for
While renovating your home, you should remain vigilantly on the lookout for any materials that may contain asbestos.
Some of the most common uses for asbestos in homes included:
- Asbestos cement sheeting, often known simply as‘fibro’, which was often used to clad outer walls of houses, to line eaves and soffits, and as a low-cost building material for many sheds and garages. Fibro was manufactured in an array of forms including flat sheets, corrugated sheets, weatherboards and patterned sheets.
- Waterproof asbestos cement materials often used to line the walls and floors of laundries, bathrooms and kitchens. Some companies even manufactured an array of coloured and decorative sheets which could be used in place of tiles.
- Asbestos cement pipes, gutters and flumes.
- Asbestos cement insulation products, such as woven‘ropes’ and ‘blankets’. These were sometimes used to insulate boilers, water heaters, and hot water pipes.
- Loose asbestos fibre insulation which was sometimes sprayed in the roof-spaces of houses, such as by the infamous Mr Fluffy business. This type of asbestos in particular is extremely dangerous, even if undisturbed.
It can be difficult to identify asbestos. For example, fibro cement sheets can look similar to chipboard sheeting so it’s important to take extra care if you’re handling a renovation and encounter a material that you’re not 100% sure of. When in doubt, assume that the product probably contains asbestos.
If you wish to find out whether your house contains asbestos, you can hire a licensed professional to perform a home inspection.
What to do if you identify asbestos in your home?
If you identify products that you believe contain asbestos, you should avoid performing any activities which may disturb or damage the product.
You should have an expert assess the material to determine if it is safe to leave, or whether it should be removed.
If the building product appears to be damaged, or in bad condition, you should stay away from it until you have had it assessed.
If there is any dust or debris do not attempt to clean up any dust or debris yourself. Household brooms or vacuums may actually just make it worse by kicking up asbestos fibres and making them airborne.
Do not remove any asbestos materials yourself. Most Australian states and territories have laws that govern how asbestos should be removed and disposed of. If you remove or dispose of asbestos incorrectly, you may not just be risking your health, you may actually be doing something illegal.
You should always hire licensed asbestos removalists to perform any asbestos removal work. They will ensure that asbestos is removed and disposed of safely and that affected areas are properly cleaned afterwards.
For more information about organisations who can identify and remove asbestos, visit the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency website and the Department of Health.