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.
From the 1920s to the 1980s Australia was one of the highest per-capita users of asbestos, especially in the domestic building industry. However, following growing public awareness regarding the health hazards associated with asbestos exposure, these asbestos containing materials were progressively phased out of the Australian market from the mid-1980s. Since 2003 there has been a total ban on the manufacture, sale, or use of asbestos in Australia.
Despite this, many Australian homes still contain asbestos which was installed before the nation-wide ban came into effect.
By some estimates as many as 1 in 3 Australian houses built or renovated prior to 1990 contain asbestos in some form. This is a major problem for a nation infatuated with DIY renovations.
Why was asbestos used?
Asbestos was favoured in industry due to its various properties including tensile strength, low weight, longevity, and heat/fire resistance.
Asbestos is also a relatively abundant natural resource in Australia. Various major asbestos mines previously operated around Australia.
Asbestos containing materials were often much cheaper than other traditional construction materials, and well suited to the Australian climate. This made them an attractive alternative for Australians aspiring to achieve the dream of home ownership.
Why is asbestos dangerous?
Asbestos is made up of microscopic fibres which pose a risk to health if they are inhaled.
There are a number of serious medical conditions which are caused by asbestos exposure, including lung cancer, and a rare cancer called mesothelioma.
Most asbestos related diseases have a long latency period. This means that they often do not manifest until decades after a person was actually exposed to asbestos.
It is important to know that there is no ‘safe’ level of exposure to asbestos. Every time a person is exposed to asbestos, their lifetime risk of developing an asbestos related disease increases. Think of it like cigarette smoking – the more cigarettes a person smokes in their life, the higher their lifetime risk of developing a smoking related disease.
The key is therefore to be careful when renovating your home, and to take all possible steps to avoid or minimize your potential to be exposed to asbestos.
Where could asbestos be located in my house?
It can be difficult to identify asbestos in the home. Many asbestos containing materials look identical to asbestos-free materials. Accordingly, when in doubt, it is best to assume that a material contains asbestos, especially if it was installed prior to 1990.
The most common and well known type of asbestos found in Australian homes is asbestos cement materials - commonly known as ‘fibro’.
Fibro materials include external wall sheeting, internal wall linings, weatherboards, linings on eaves/soffits, corrugated roof sheeting, compressed floor sheeting (especially in wet areas), electrical/fire boards, pipes, gutters, and flues.
The asbestos fibres in fibro materials are bonded in cement. This means that fibro materials generally pose a low risk so long as they are in good condition, and are left undisturbed.
However if fibro materials are cut, broken, sanded, or demolished, they can release microscopic asbestos fibres into the air which pose a serious risk to health.
Other types of asbestos less commonly found in homes include asbestos thermal insulation which can sometimes found on boilers, pipes, or heating systems. This may come in the form of a plaster-like material, or in the form of woven ‘rope’ or ‘blankets’.
These types of asbestos containing materials pose a greater risk to health because they are friable, and much more likely to release asbestos fibres into the air.
Some Australian homes also had loose asbestos fibres sprayed directly into the roof-spaces as a form of insulation (you may have heard of the infamous ‘Mr Fluffy’ business). This type of asbestos poses a very serious risk to the health of persons living in the house. If you suspect there may be loose asbestos insulation in your home, you should seek an urgent assessment from a qualified professional, and where possible, vacate the premises until the threat has been assessed.
What should I do if there is asbestos in my home?
If you suspect there could be asbestos in your home, you should avoid performing any activities which could disturb or damage these materials.
If the suspected asbestos containing materials are damaged, or in bad condition, you should stay away from it until you have had it properly assessed or disposed of.
Whilst most State and Territories allow you to remove and dispose of small quantities of certain kinds of asbestos containing materials (such as fibro), there are very strict rules governing their disposal. Some types of asbestos containing materials can only be legally removed by qualified professionals (such as pipe insulation or loose asbestos insulation).
Furthermore, performing any sort of work with asbestos poses a serious risk to health if you do not have the correct protective equipment.
Ultimately it is always best to hire licenced asbestos removalists to assess and removal any asbestos located in your home. Whilst this may be expensive, it is the best way to ensure that the materials are removed and disposed of safely, and to provide peace of mind to you and your loved ones.
If you would like more information you should visit the website of the Australian Government’s Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency and the website of the Asbestos Awareness Campaign.