Experts believe that asbestos is present in one third of older homes. It was a common building material used from the 1940s through to the late 1980s and was considered an ideal product due to its fire resistance, insulating properties and durability. It wasn’t until the 1990s that it was identified as a health hazard.
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is made up of very small fibres of naturally-occurring silicon material. These fibres were compressed under heat and pressure and firmly bound to form the solid sheeting that was so commonly used both inside and outside buildings. Pliable loosely bound asbestos material was used in insulation and automotive applications.
Where would I be likely to find asbestos in my house?
Firmly bound asbestos can be found as the exterior cladding in the form of fibro, fibrous cement or artificial brick and as eaves and flue pipes. It was also used as a roofing material in the form of corrugated fibro, in older vinyl flooring and textured paint finishes.
Fibro sheeting was also commonly used as a wall lining, especially in wet areas like bathrooms, kitchens and laundries.
Loosely bound asbestos products could be present as insulation of hot water services, hot water pipes, heaters and stoves, as well as insulation in the ceiling.
As a general guide, houses built between 1940 and mid 1980 are more likely to contain asbestos than those built in the mid to late 80s. Homes built after 1990 are not likely to contain any asbestos. It has not been used in Australia or imported since 2004. So if you are having your bathroom renovated your builder or craftsman may come across it so be aware of the potential issue.
Asbestos was also used in automotive parts, mainly as insulation.
What is the danger?
As a general rule, asbestos doesn’t pose any danger or health risk until it is broken, starts to deteriorate or is broken, cut or sanded. When disturbed, it can produce dust containing the asbestos fibres. It is when these are breathed in that health problems can occur, including asbestosis, pleural plaques and mesothelioma.
How do I know if there is asbestos in my house?
If your house was built during the years that asbestos products were commonly used, it is best to err on the side of caution and assume that you have it. Building materials need to be tested by an accredited testing authority, so it is wise to call in a professional to know for certain.
Important safety precautions
While you are legally permitted to remove asbestos from your property, you need to be aware that loosely bound asbestos products represent the greatest risk to health and should only be removed by a trained and accredited asbestos removal specialist. If you are going to handle other asbestos material yourself, it is vital that you take every precaution to minimise the risks.
Basic precautions include wearing disposable protective gear, including head covering and gloves; working in a ventilated space; wearing an accredited ventilator not just a dust mask; covering the ground with a disposable drop sheet; mopping the area instead of sweeping and taking care not to break the sheets. This list is by no means complete and you will need to find out exactly what is needed before you start the job. It is important to remember that handling asbestos is not a task to be taken lightly.
Disposing of asbestos
Most council areas in Australia have explicit conditions concerning the handling and disposal of asbestos. Contact your local environmental health official to find out what you are required to do. Penalties may apply if you don’t follow the guidelines.
The dangers associated with the removal or renovation of asbestos products cannot be stressed too strongly. By far the safest strategy is to call in a professional tradesman who has had the right training and is accredited in the handling of this potentially hazardous material.