Asbestos - where is it and how to deal with it

  1. Introduction
  2. What is asbestos?
  3. How do I recognise it?
  4. Where is it found in homes?
  5. Disturbing asbestos - what to do?
  6. Working with asbestos cement products
  7. Removing asbestos cement sheeting (fibro cement)
  8. Disposing of asbestos containing materials
  9. More information 

Introduction

If you think you've found asbestos in your home, the first thing is: don't panic - but don't touch it. Asbestos in the home is a risk when it is disturbed in a way that produces fibres or dust containing asbestos fibres. This could include demolition work, renovating, drilling or doing work in or on roofs, around insulated pipes, and so on.

Unfortunately, there are asbestos-containing materials in many Australian homes. Asbestos was commonly used in many building materials before the mid to late 1980's because of its durability, fire resistance and insulating properties.

Asbestos in the home can be in one of two forms. The most common is in firmly bound material (such as asbestos cement sheeting or 'fibro'; water or flue pipes, roof shingles and flexible building boards, some types of vinyl floor tiles or 'lino', plaster patching compounds, etc). The second is in the form of loose asbestos fibres and was used in certain types of insulation products for hot water pipes, domestic heaters and stoves, and ceiling insulation.

What is asbestos? 

Asbestos is a silicate mineral, mined from the earth in much the same way as any other mineral. The wide use of asbestos over thousands of years is due to its resistance to heat and chemicals.

Types Of Asbestos:

  • WHITE ASBESTOS (Chrysotile) has curly fibres which are difficult to separate. They are white to grey in colour.
  • BROWN ASBESTOS (Amosite) is the type of asbestos found most often in sprayed insulation materials.
  • BLUE ASBESTOS (Crocidolite)

What are the health effects of asbestos exposure?

Asbestos is known to be very toxic, especially following prolonged exposure. The ill health effects of exposure to asbestos arise from breathing in, and retention of, very small fibres of asbestos.

The finest asbestos fibres, with a diameter of less than .0008mm, penetrate deep into the lungs of exposed workers and are never removed. The longest of the fibres defy the body's normal defences and clearance mechanisms. Over time, the diseases caused by asbestos are:

ASBESTOSIS
Progressive scarring (fibrosis) of the lung, leading to pain, and breathlessness. The first symptoms can appear 15 to 20 years after exposure. The condition can lead to more serious conditions, and there is no known cure.

LUNG CANCER
Tumours of the bronchial tubes and lungs, occurring up to 25 to 30 years after first exposure, and normally fatal. The risk increases greatly in workers who smoke. The ICFTU estimate that at least one case of lung cancer in 10 is caused by exposure to asbestos

MESOTHELIOMA
A cancer of the lining of the chest (pleura) or of the abdomen (peritoneum), this tumour thickens the lining and may eventually totally enclose the lung. Painful and invariably fatal, it usually develops 20 - 30 years after sometimes even minimal exposure. The Mesothelioma in Australia Incidence 1982 to 2008 Mortality 1997 to 2007 reveals that the number of new cases of mesothelioma in Australia increased dramatically between 1982 and 2008. In 2005, 522 deaths were attributed to the disease. Asbestos was widely used up until the late 1980's and with a latency period between exposure to asbestos fibres and the diagnosis of mesothelioma of up to 40 years, the authors report that mesothelioma should peak by 2021.  The most recent report (Mesothelioma in Australia Incidence 1982 to 2009 Mortality 1997 to 2011) found that in 2009, 666 new cases of mesothelioma were diagnosed in Australia, while in 2011, 606 deaths were attributed to the disease.

OTHER CANCERS of the larynx, stomach, large intestine and increasingly there is evidence of cancers such as ovary, breast, kidney and bone marrow.

All of these cancers and, in particular mesothelioma, have been produced in humans and in animals BY ALL FORMS OF ASBESTOS. (See short video 'Diseases from Inhaling Asbestos')

There are a number of asbestos support groups that can provide information and assistance to victims of asbestos related diseases and their families.

Other indications of asbestos exposure are:

  • pleural plaques - patches of thickening of the lining of the chest wall and over the diaphragm;
  • pleural effusion - collection of fluid within the chest but outside the lung.

Asbestos is likely to be in a building if:

  • It was built or refurbished between 1940 and the mid/late 1980's in particular;
  • It also has a steel frame; and/or
  • It has boilers with thermal insulation.

How do I recognise it?

It is very difficult to identify if building materials, pipes, and so on actually contain asbestos. The identification of asbestos fibres must be done by a qualified professional analyst who has been approved by NATA (National Association of Testing Authorities), but as a general rule, if your home was built or renovated before the mid to late 1980's then it is likely that asbestos is present somewhere. You can get more information on where you might find asbestos, and also what it looks like in the section below.  If you want to have the material checked by a hygienist, use one on the VTHC List of Consultants

If the material is in good condition and unlikely to release fibres, then it can be left in place. This may be the case for tiles, floors and painted, sealed surfaces. If, however the surfaces have deteriorated, or are going to be demolished, or are going to be disturbed during renovations, then the asbestos should be removed/the material replaced.

Where is it in homes?

Unfortunately, many of our homes have asbestos-containing materials in them.  How can you tell if you have asbestos in YOUR home?

Asbestos was commonly used in many building materials, mainly between the 1940s and late 1980s, because of its durability, fire resistance and insulating properties. Asbestos was also used in brakes, clutches and gaskets of many cars. Of course, asbestos was extensively used in manufacturing - for example in ovens, fire walls, gaskets and so on.

A number of products once used in the Australian building industry, both domestic and commercial, were produced containing asbestos fibres. These could be either firmly or loosely bound.

Asbestos in homes - it could be in more places than you think! (Image from WorkCoverBC)

Firmly-bound asbestos

When in a good condition (that is, not weathered or damaged), the asbestos is said to be 'non-friable' - however, if damaged, then it becomes 'friable'. Fibre-cement products formerly contained asbestos fibres, firmly embedded in a hardened cement mixture. Manufacturers have replaced the asbestos with cellulose fibres in modern fibre-cement products.

Asbestos-cement products that may be in homes include:

  • Exterior fibre cement cladding (Fibro or 'AC sheeting') and weatherboards (pre mid 1980's)
  • All corrugated cement roofing
  • Water or flue pipes (pre 1988)
  • Roof shingles
  • Flexible building boards - eave linings, bathroom and laundry linings, cement tile underlay (pre mid 1980's)
  • Imitation/artificial brick cladding
  • Architectural cement pipe columns (pre-1988)

Other materials that may contain firmly bound asbestos fibres include:

  • Plaster patching compounds
  • Textured paint
  • Vinyl floor tiles
  • The backing of linoleum floor coverings

Loosely-bound asbestos ('friable' asbestos)

The loose form of asbestos fibres may be found in a few older forms of insulation used in domestic heaters and stoves, and in ceiling insulation products. The latter were more commonly used in commercial properties, however, care should be taken with any loosely-bound insulation manufactured before the mid to late 1980s.  Examples include:

  • Insulation on hot water pipes
  • Insulation in old domestic heaters
  • Insulation in stoves
  • Ceiling insulation products
  • In some carpet underlay products

Generally, glass fibres have replaced asbestos in today's insulation products.

Disturbing asbestos - what to do

Special precautions must be taken to reduce exposure to asbestos while sawing, sanding, grinding, drilling, breaking, general maintenance, renovation or demolition activities, as dust/fibre may be produced. At no time should power tools be used.

Home owners can legally maintain, remove or dispose of asbestos-cement products in their homes. As long as necessary precautions are carefully followed, it may even be done relatively safely.  However, because it may be difficult to follow all of these precautions, and/or find a licensed asbestos landfill site, the VTHC recommends that a licensed and VTHC approved asbestos removalist be called. This is particularly the case if there is a larger amount of material OR if the material is 'friable'. (See the VTHC List of Removalists).  If in doubt, call in the experts. If you are not going to do the work yourself, then only a licensed removalist can remove and dispose of it - as the home then becomes classified as a 'workplace'. 

If you, or a removalist, is working, demolishing or removing asbestos containing materials, remember your neighbours, and let them know what's going on. Under the Nuisance Act, any nuisances that are, or are liable to be, offensive or dangerous to health could be investigated by an environmental health officer of your local council.

Working with Asbestos Cement Products

The aim is to minimise generating any dust or fibres and to avoid contaminating the work area:

  1. Work with asbestos-cement products in well-ventilated areas, if possible, outdoors
  2. You must wear a half-face particulate filter or a half-face respirator fitted with a dust/particulate cartridge appropriate for asbestos (a class P1 or P2 filter cartridge). There are also disposable class P1 and class P2 respirators. The respirators must comply with Australian Standard 1716. Wear disposable overalls to prevent contamination of any clothing. After work is complete, remove overalls and disposable mask, seal in a container and mark "Asbestos contaminated clothing" for proper disposal. Thoroughly wash hands.

    Warning on dust masks: Do not use the simple disposable dust masks - these provide no protection against asbestos fibres.  Disposable dust masks (also called 'nuisance' dust masks) are useless against hazardous substances and should not be used. These are not really protective devices: they perform badly and should not be used for protection against fine dusts, welding fumes, asbestos, fine sand, paint spray, gases, vapours or aerosols, and other hazardous substances.
  3. You must wet down the material thoroughly before you start work, and keep it wet while working. This reduces the release of dust during handling. Do not use high pressure water jets as this may increase the spread of any loose material.
  4. Do not use power tools, abrasive cutting or sanding discs on asbestos-cement products. Only use non-powered hand tools (eg guillotine, hand-saw) as these cause a smaller quantity of coarser dust and waste chips.
  5. Use plastic drop sheets to collect cut-offs and coarse dust. Clean up any remaining asbestos-cement in the work areas with a vacuum cleaner appropriate for collecting asbestos fibres (should comply with Australian Standard 3544). It is unsafe to use a domestic vacuum cleaner as the waste is not properly contained. If you have to sweep, keep the surfaces wet to keep down the dust

Removing Asbestos Cement Sheeting (fibro)

The following precautions should be followed when removing asbestos cement roofing, wall sheeting or other "fibro" products from the home:

  1. Keep all windows and doors of the house closed.
  2. You must wear a half-face particulate filter or a half-face respirator fitted with a dust/particulate cartridge appropriate for asbestos (a class P1 or P2 filter cartridge). There are also disposable class P1 and class P2 respirators. The respirators must comply with Australian Standard 1716. Wear disposable overalls to prevent contamination of any clothing. After work is complete, remove overalls and disposable mask, seal in a container and mark "Asbestos contaminated clothing" for proper disposal. Thoroughly wash hands.

    Warning on dust masks: see warning above.
  3. You must wet down the material thoroughly before you start work, and keep it wet while working. This reduces the release of dust during handling. Do not use high pressure water jets as this may increase the spread of any loose material.  Do NOT wet down sheets if it creates a high risk of slipping from a roof.
  4. Pull out any nails first and remove the asbestos cement sheeting with minimal breakage. Carefully lower, but not drop, the sheets to the ground. Minimise cutting or breaking up the sheets.
  5. Stack the sheets on a ground sheet. Do not leave them around the garden where they could break or be crushed, or where children may play around them.
  6. Do not re-use asbestos cement sheets, or any nails or screws.

Remember, however, that if the work is being done by a paid worker, or if the home is a 'workplace' then Part 4.3 (Asbestos) of the regulations must be complied with.

Disposing of asbestos containing materials

The law requires that all asbestos cement sheeting and off-cuts, pipes, insulation, collected dust, and protective clothing must be wrapped, labelled and disposed of only at a site licensed by the Environment Protection Authority. It is illegal to dispose of it at your local tip, in normal rubbish collection or in skips.

For packing sheeting and pipes:

  1. Thoroughly wet all the articles and maintain in a wet condition until packaged for transport. 
  2. Place the articles on two layers of polythene sheeting (approx 0.2mm thick) to a height less than 1 metre, and completely wrap the articles. Seal with adhesive tape. 
  3. Label the packages with a warning sign about 75mm x 90mm, stating: "CAUTION. ASBESTOS. DO NOT OPEN OR DAMAGE BAG. DO NOT INHALE DUST"

For packing insulated lagged pipes, boilers, heaters and equipment:

  1. Double wrap the entire article with polythene sheets (approx 0.2mm thick), and seal with adhesive tape. 
  2. Label the package with a warning sign as per Number 3, above.

For Asbestos Dust and Friable Asbestos:

  1. Discharge dust into drums (this should be wet). 
  2. Fix the drum lid securely using a suitable device (eg toggle clips, screws, or bolts) 
  3. Label each drum with a dangerous goods mark. 
  4. Label each drum with the asbestos warning sign (see above) at least three times.

OR Bag the dust as follows:

  1. Discharge dust directly into double polythene bags approx 0.2mm thick. A maximum bag size of 1200 mm (length) x 900 mm (width) should be used. The bagged dust should be wetted and the loaded weight should not be more than 30kg. Bags should not be filled more than 50% capacity. 
  2. Tie each bag 
  3. Label each bag with a dangerous goods mark. 
  4. Label each bag with asbestos warning signs (see above) at least three times on one side of each bag.

Asbestos Tile, Gaskets, Brake Linings, Clutch Plates, Acoustic Insulation, Non-bonded Textiles, Gloves, Protective Clothing and Respirators.

These should be bagged as described above.

See also

  • Victorian asbestos-diseases support group, Asbestoswise, has developed and posted a very informative video The Third Wave of Asbestos Exposure which provides advice to householders who are contemplating doing renovations. It explores where asbestos can be found in homes, the effects of asbestos exposure and how disease forms.
    Go to the Asbestoswise website or YouTube to check out the video
  • From the UK's HSE website - The Asbestos House - a tool for finding where asbestos might be, and also from the HSE, the Asbestos Image Gallery 
  • From WorkSafe Victoria: Asbestos - A handbook for workplaces which has useful background information on asbestos, what it looks like, where it might be found, etc.    
  • Workplace Health and Safety Queensland has published a poster [pdf] showing common locations of asbestos-containing materials in houses.  Also a very clear and informative video: Working safely with asbestos - for the home renovator which provides advice to home owners to ensure that any removal work done by non-professionals is done in a manner that does not create a risk
  • The NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change has produced a leaflet Safely disposing of asbestos waste from your home [pdf] with useful advice.

Last amended February 2015

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