There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos fibres, so it is vital to learn how to identify it, the risks of disturbing it, and how dispose of it safely.
Why every home owner needs to know about asbestos
Every Australian who’s planning on renovating their home or building a new home, or is in the business of construction or home renovation, should become aware of how to spot asbestos and how to safely manage and dispose of it. Here’s why.
1. Asbestos can be disturbed during DIY home renovations
Traditionally, mesothelioma cancer caused by asbestos was almost entirely found in men. From 1982 to 2009, 85% of mesothelioma was diagnosed in men, especially tradesmen who had come into contact with it as a miner, manufacturer, or insulation installer.
But that’s no longer the case, as more people are doing their own home renovations than ever before.
A study in the Medical Journal of Australia showed that in NSW:
- 60% of DIY home renovators reported being exposed to asbestos during their renovations.
- 40% reported their children were also exposed to asbestos during home DIY home renovations.
- The most common thing to cause asbestos exposure was cutting AC Fibro Sheeting (58%).
- 37% of DIY renovators said they used a power tool to cut asbestos – which you should never, ever do because it disturbs the asbestos fibres.
The key thing to take away from this study is that it’s not worth DIYing your renovation if there’s any risk of asbestos. People who got an expert tradie in to do their renovations were much less likely to be exposed to asbestos or have their families exposed to it.
2. Asbestos causes debilitating and fatal diseases
When asbestos-containing products are left alone and are installed and enclosed properly, they don’t usually cause a health risk to humans.
But as soon as you disturb the asbestos, fibres are released that are extremely hazardous to our health. These fibres can be inhaled by anyone living in the home, in the area, or even pedestrians walking past the building.
The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance reports that even a brief exposure to asbestos – a once-off occurrence with a small amount of fibres – can lead to asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma cancer.
Unfortunately, most of the diseases caused by asbestos are difficult to treat, so prevention is the key.
Some of the main diseases caused by asbestos include:
- Mesothelioma: Cancer in the lining of the chest and abdomen. Symptoms don’t appear until the disease is very advanced, and it usually takes more than 20 years from asbestos exposure to diagnosis, so it is difficult to treat and impossible to cure. Patients usually only survive 10-12 months after diagnosis. About 600 people are diagnosed every year.
- Pleural disease: Inflammation of the outer lining of the lung (pleura). The pleura stiffens and thickens and can fill with fluid, making it difficult to breathe.
- Asbestosis: Scarring of the lungs caused by inhalation of large quantities. Symptoms include tightness in the chest, a dry cough, and skin turning blue due to lack of oxygen. Usually seen in former asbestos miners, manufacturers, and insulation installers. Takes a decade or more to develop.
- Lung cancer: Cancer in the lung. Asbestos greatly increases the risk of developing lung cancer for people who smoke.
For more information and fact sheets about asbestos, health risks, and support for patients and caregivers, visit the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance. This is an online educational and support resource founded in 2011, for patients with this rare cancer and their caregivers.
Their website focusses on the care a patient needs and has information on mesothelioma cancer, the types of treatment, and preventative measures. The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance can also provide patients with a list of doctors and cancer clinics that specialise in this area.
3. There is still a lot of asbestos in Australia
Here’s some scary facts about the amount of asbestos left in Australian homes – and what you can do about preventing your exposure to it.
At least 1 in 3 Australian homes still contain some form of asbestos.
In Australia, we actually introduced a complete ban on asbestos and its products in 2003. However, any home that was built in or before the mid-1980s has a high chance of containing some sort of asbestos.
If your home was built before 1987 and is made from brick, weatherboard, fibro, or clad, it almost definitely will include some asbestos-containing materials.
In many homes in the ACT and NSW, loose-fill asbestos was used in ceiling spaces as insulation in the 1960s and 1970s. To find out if your home is in one of the affected counties, please visit the Fair Trading NSW website.
Even homes built after the mid-1980s can contain up to 1% asbestos.
Of course, the percentage is lower with less percentage of asbestos, but if the asbestos fibres become disturbed, all it takes is a once-off exposure to run the risk of an asbestos-related disease.
Where you could find asbestos
According to Asbestos Awareness, you could find asbestos just about anywhere in your home:
- Under floor coverings such as carpets, linoleum and vinyl tiles
- Behind wall and floor tiles
- In cement floors
- In internal and external walls
- In ceilings and ceiling spaces (insulation)
- In eaves and roofs
- In garages
- Around hot water pipes and fences
- Around extensions to homes or sheds such as outdoor toilets, backyard tool sheds, farm sheds, chook sheds, and even dog kennels
- Buried in the ground as broken pieces that were leftover after building a home
What if you find asbestos in your home?
Most people cannot tell whether there is asbestos in building materials just by looking at them. Finding asbestos requires scientific testing of a sample of material by a NATA-accredited laboratory. To find out more about testing and laboratories near you, visit www.nata.asn.au or call (03) 9274 8200.
The following instructions have been summarised from the Asbestos Awareness 20 point asbestos safety checklist.
- Don’t cut it! Don’t drill it! Don’t drop it! Don’t sand it! Don’t saw it! Don’t scrape it! Don’t scrub it! Don’t dismantle it! Don’t tip it! Don’t waterblast it! Don’t demolish it! And whatever you do… Don’t dump it!
- Are you doing renovations or maintenance? Don’t put your health and the health of your family at risk – don’t do DIY where asbestos is present.
- If in doubt, assume asbestos materials are present and take every precaution when renovating or working in and around homes.
- Dealing with asbestos is important and serious, but it can be managed, so don’t feel overwhelmed or give up.
- If you’re not sure if asbestos is present, have it inspected by a licensed removalist or a licensed asbestos assessor.
- You do not usually need to remove the asbestos. You can paint it and leave it alone, but remember to check it occasionally for any signs of wear and tear.
- Find out the legal requirements for your area (see below) for managing, removing, and disposing of asbestos.
- The safest way to remove asbestos is to retain a licensed professional asbestos removalist who is equipped to protect you and your family from the dangers of asbestos dust and fibres.
- ONLY licensed friable asbestos removalists are allowed to remove asbestos fibres that are friable, meaning fibres that are loose and not bonded into the other building materials. This includes most asbestos insulation materials.
- It is affordable to get a professional to remove asbestos. It costs about the same as other licensed tradesmen like electricians, plumbers, and tilers. The cost of disposing of the asbestos at a lawful site is often included in the professional’s bill for removal, unlike if you disposed of it yourself. (Think of the hospital bills for lung cancer – you cannot afford not to use a professional!)
- If you must work with any asbestos or asbestos-containing material, protect yourself and your family and follow the legal and safety requirements to minimise the release of dust or small particles. You must take safety precautions, including wearing specific protective clothing, a specifically-designed asbestos correct mask or breathing apparatus, and dispose of any dust and asbestos legally.
- Never use tools on asbestos materials, as they will send asbestos fibres flying into the air for people to breathe as friable asbestos. This includes power tools (electric drills, angle grinders, circular saws, electric sanders) and high pressure water blasters or compressed air.
Better safe than sorry when renovating
The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance says the most important information they want to spread to DIYers and renovators is that if you come across asbestos or are unsure if it is asbestos, it is better to be safe than sorry.
You should have the area inspected by a professional to test if there is indeed asbestos present and to see if it needs to be removed. Removal should be done by a trained professional.
When renovating or building a home it is always best to keep yourself protected with respirators, eyewear, coveralls, gloves, and boots. In addition, you should always decontaminate your clothing after a work session on your renovation project.
How to dispose of asbestos
The legal requirements for disposing of asbestos are different in each state and territory. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency in NSW requires that asbestos waste can only be disposed of at specific landfills.
New South Wales
- EPA NSW Asbestos Disposal www.epa.nsw.gov.au/waste/asbestos/index.htm
- Department of Health: Asbestos guide for householders and the general public www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/ohp-enhealth-asbestos-may2012.htm
- WorkCover NSW Asbestos and Demolition Licence Holder Search Facility http://www.safework.nsw.gov.au/licences-and-registrations/licences/asbestos-licences
- Asbestos Victoria http://www.asbestos.vic.gov.au/home
- EPA Victoria Asbestos Disposal www.epa.vic.gov.au/your-environment/waste/asbestos
- WorkSafe Victoria Asbestos Management and Removal in the Home www.worksafe.vic.gov.au/forms-and-publications/forms-and-publications/management-and-disposal-of-asbestos
- Asbestos Queensland www.deir.qld.gov.au/asbestos/
- Asbestos Occupational Health and Safety http://www.safework.sa.gov.au/show_page.jsp?id=2974
Australian Capital Territory
- Asbestos ACT www.asbestos.act.gov.au
- Asbestos in the Home www.public.health.wa.gov.au/3/1143/2/asbestos_in_the_home.pm
- Asbestos in the Workplace http://www.commerce.wa.gov.au/worksafe/asbestos-information-asbestos-workplace
- Asbestos Management www.health.nt.gov.au/Environmental_Health/Asbestos_Management