Beware the Perils of Asbestos

Australia’s first female National Brand Ambassador for the Asbestos Awareness Campaign, Cherie Barber, spreads the word about the risks of asbestos to keen DIYers.

As a professional renovator, I’m obsessive about safely managing the risks posed by asbestos. And the reality is that if you’re renovating any property built prior to the mid- ‘80s (when asbestos was eventually banned from all domestic building materials), there’s a high chance you’ll find it somewhere.

That’s because the construction industry loved asbestos in the decades following the second world war – it was a cheap, practical and highly efficient building material. It just took a while for the world to realise it was potentially deadly, too.

For renovators, the important thing to understand is that asbestos rarely poses a risk unless it’s disintegrating or disturbed, and the tiny fibres become airborne. So the first thing any renovator (especially the DIY brigade) needs to know is where asbestos could potentially be lurking.

Asbestos as fibro sheeting

Asbestos cement sheeting (also known as AC sheeting or “fibro”) is a cement sheet reinforced and bonded with asbestos. It was used extensively in internal walls and ceilings, and as floor and wall linings for wet areas such as bathrooms and laundries. In fact, it was by far the most common use of asbestos in the domestic building industry. So you never want to wield a sledgehammer, drill into walls or go chipping tiles off bathroom walls without first knowing whether there is AC sheeting behind.

It’s important to know that fibre cement sheets manufactured today contain no asbestos (they use cellulose fibres instead) and are still widely used in the building industry. Fibro sheets typically have a dimpled pattern on the back and random asbestos fibres will probably be visible on the surface, whereas modern fibre cement is smooth on both sides.

Asbestos as carpet underlay

Old hessian bags used to transport raw asbestos were sometimes recycled as carpet underlay up until the early ‘70s. It’s something to be aware of if you’re pulling up really old carpets to replace them or polish the floorboards underneath. The underlay is likely to be brown in colour and look like a fibrous mat. And it’s probably been compacted from decades of foot traffic.

It most cases, the underlay was either stapled onto a timber floor or glued onto a concrete floor. Asbestos was also sometimes used in the adhesive for the glue. It looks like a black, bitumous material.

Asbestos in vinyl flooring

The felt-like backing of old vinyl sheet flooring contains friable (easily broken) asbestos material. In fact, the backing typically contains around 80–100 per cent asbestos, which gave the flooring a nice cushioned effect.

Asbestos vinyl tiles contain asbestos in a tightly bonded matrix. They generally don’t have a backing and were usually glued directly to the floor. The glue may also contain asbestos.

Asbestos as ceiling insulation and around old pipes

Loose or knitted asbestos was rarely used for domestic purposes. However, you could find it as ceiling insulation or as thermal insulation – otherwise called lagging – around hot water pipes, where it can resemble woven rope. Old flues and stoves may also contain insulating asbestos.

Asbestos outside the home

Outside, asbestos was used as exterior cladding for houses, eaves and guttering, in flat patterned and corrugated wall and roof sheeting, roof shingles, in imitation brick cladding, fencing, piping, in outside dunnies, dog kennels, cubby houses, sheds, car ports and garages.

The website of Asbestos Check , which provides independent asbestos testing, has useful pictures of most of the materials and uses mentioned here, so it may help you visibly identify obvious asbestos culprits. The only way to be absolutely sure is to have it tested.

What are the risk factors?

Extensive studies show that asbestos in the home only presents a risk when it is disturbed and its microscopic fibres become airborne – and then inhaled and ingested. If the asbestos is in good condition and left alone, the risk is minimal.

As a general rule, if a building was constructed:

  • before the mid-1980s, it is highly likely that it would have some materials containing asbestos;
  • between the mid-1980s and 1990, it is likely that it would have materials containing asbestos; and
  • after 1990, it is highly unlikely it would have materials containing asbestos.   

What if I find asbestos?

If you do find it, here’s the important message from the Asbestos Awareness team: “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!” In other words, leave it alone or bring in a licensed asbestos consultant to safely dispose of it.

If you’re about to start renovating, be sure to check out the asbestos awareness website and read their detailed recommendations about the safe handling and removal of asbestos. Don’t take any risks when it comes to this deadly material. You may think you’ve got away with it, but in 10 or even 40 years’ time (asbestos-related diseases have a long incubation time), you may be paying a very expensive price for not taking the proper precautions now.

Got a question for Cherie? Ask her here.

 

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3 comments
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It can be such a tricky thing to see to the inexperienced renovator. Its always best to obtain a building inspection to make sure you know all the materials you are dealing with and whats involved.
Posted by Billy31Report
I was first informed of the perils of asbestos in about 1972.

It is nothing short of criminal that companies were still making money out of killing people until well into the eighties and like cigarette companies were in total denial of the by then obvious hazards of the product.
Posted by Shane302Report
Cherie, it is definitely worth mentioning that even though sheet material on walls or eave soffits may appear not to be asbestos if the building was built in the mid to late 80's after asbestos was banned, it should be assumed that the material is asbestos, because the asbestos sheet material that was manufactured at the time looks exactly like the sheet material that we use today, during the 80's the asbestos sheet did not have a rough or dimply surface, it was smooth on both sides just like the new products you see today, I often gasp when I see these renovation shows pulling off what I believe to be asbestos in some buildings, I just hope that someone had the mind to have an expert check prior to starting, or for instance after the Brisbane floods when it was clearly asbestos that volunteers were removing from flooded houses while reporters stood by merrily breathing the dust while patting the well meaning volunteers on the back, I only wish we were more aware.