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Asbestos in the Home

A Guide to Well-being and Protection in the Home Asbestos

Asbestos may be defined as a group of fibrous silicate materials that occur naturally in the environment. Between the 1940s and late 1980s asbestos was commonly used in numerous building materials. The presence of asbestos in home building materials does not pose an immediate risk to health unless they are:

  • Broken
  • In poor or deteriorated condition
  • Distributed during activities that produce dust containing asbestos fibers, including removal of the sheets or material

Exposure to Asbestos Causes Health Risks

Some people have developed asbestos-related lung disease, such as asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma, after inhaling asbestos fibers. Asbestos-related disease is generally associated with long-term exposure to asbestos in a work environment. As it is still difficult to determine the level of exposure that may cause health effects, exposure to asbestos fibers or dust containing asbestos fibers should always be kept to a minimum.

The initial and major risk was to workers, their families and surrounding areas of the mines due to working with raw materials. The second and less known is the building workers that worked with this material. All asbestos sheeting contained varying degrees of asbestos, but usually 7-12 % only. The rest of the material was sand and cement, or resins. There is now concern with the 'third wave', which is people who have undertaken substantial renovations of a house that contained asbestos. It is unknown the degree of exposure for a person to contract mesothelioma.

When asbestos is in good condition, it's not an immediate risk. Asbestos particles are dangerous when the sheets become 'friable', which is either broken pieces or when the material is deteriorated to a stage when it can be broken by hand. The microscopic particles become airborne and can enter the lungs. The sheets become more brittle with age and exposed surfaces will weather and allow loose fibers to be exposed. For these reasons an inspection should be undertaken, not only to identify the presence of asbestos but also its condition and risks. Deteriorated surfaces should never be hosed down or water pressure cleaned as it releases the fibers.

Identifying Asbestos in the Home
Asbestos fibers may be found either firmly or loosely bound in many products once used in the building industry.

Firmly-bound asbestos ('non-friable' asbestos)
Fiber cement products contained asbestos fibers, firmly embedded in a hardened cement matrix. Cellulose fibers have since replaced asbestos in today's fiber-cement products.

Asbestos-cement products that may be found around the home include:

  • Flat or corrugated sheeting (commonly called 'fibro' or 'AC sheeting'

  • Including villa board and tilux in the bathroom, laundry and kitchen)
  • Water or flue pipes
  • Hard plank cladding

  • Imitation brick cladding which is fixed to AC sheets

Loosely-bound asbestos ('friable' asbestos)
The loose form of asbestos fibers may be found in a few older forms of insulation used in domestic heaters and stoves, and in ceiling insulation products. Old boilers left in the roof void of units (often built around 1930) can be coated with white asbestos, which is virtually raw asbestos. It should be noted, however, that ceiling insulation containing asbestos was generally used in commercial buildings and it is unlikely that the ceiling insulation in a domestic building will contain asbestos. In most cases, glass fibers have replaced asbestos in today's insulation products. Friable asbestos also includes weathered external sheeting and usually corrugated roof sheeting.

Roof shingles and corrugated roof sheeting

Vermiculite ceiling spray

Attic Insulation

Pipe Insulation

Sink under coating for sound

What does asbestos look like?
It is very difficult to identify the presence of asbestos by eye. As a general rule, certain building materials installed before the late 1980s may contain asbestos. The only way to be certain, however, is to have a site inspection. If there is doubt, then samples will be taken for laboratory testing. This should be conducted prior to any maintenance, renovation, or demolition activities proceed. If you do not want to go to the expense of testing to determine if asbestos is present, then the material should be treated as though if contains asbestos.

What Should I do if I find Asbestos?
In most cases the presence of bonded or firmly bound asbestos-containing building materials in the home is no cause for alarm and these materials can be left in place. For example, internal asbestos-cement sheet walls or ceilings that are in good condition and coated with paint do not pose a risk to health. The surface should not be sanded with an orbital sander prior to repainting. Also, external asbestos-cement roofs and wall cladding do not need to be replaced unless they are broken or the surfaces have deteriorated excessively

Can I remove asbestos from my home myself?
A householder may legally remove some asbestos from their property. The maximum amount of bonded material is 50 square meters (as from 1 January 2007). As asbestos poses a health risk during removal, packaging, transport and disposal, it is important that it is handled safety during these operations. It is a requirement that loosely-bound asbestos (friable) only be removed by a licensed professional, as the health risks associated with handling this type of material are far greater than for firmly-bound asbestos.

What Should I do if I need to disturb any asbestos?
Asbestos-cement (bonded) building products can be maintained, removed or disposed of safety, as long as certain precautions are taken. It should be noted that if these precautions cannot be followed then you should call in a licensed asbestos abatement company to do the work. It is not advisable to do any work yourself with materials that contain loosely-bound asbestos (friable) due to the increased potential health risks in handling such material. In this case, always consult a licensed asbestos abatement company.

Consider your neighbors
When deciding how to work with, remove or dispose of asbestos-containing materials do not forget your neighbors. Under the nuisance provisions of the Health Act 1958, any nuisances which are, or are liable to be, offensive or dangerous to health could be investigated by an environmental health officer of your local council. Consequently any asbestos work carried out without appropriate precautions may be investigated.

When Handling (Bonded) Asbestos-Cement Products:

  • Work with asbestos-cement products in well-ventilated areas, and where possible, in the open air (but not on windy days).
  • Thoroughly wet down the material before you start work by lightly spraying it with water or coat with a spray on solution that provides a film to the surface. Keep it wet while working to reduce the release of fibers and dust. Do not use high-pressure water jets as this may increase the spread of any loose fibers or dust. Also, do not wet down sheets if it creates a high risk of slipping from a roof.
  • Only use non-powered hand tools as these generate a smaller quantity of predominantly coarser dust and waste chips.
  • If removing asbestos-cement sheeting, pull out any nails first and remove the sheeting with minimum breakage. Carefully lower, but not drop, the sheets to the ground and stack them on two layers of polythene sheeting, approximately 0.2mm thick (for example heavy duty builders plastic). Avoid skidding one asbestos-cement sheet over the surface of another as this may abrade the surface of the materials and increase the likelihood of the release of fibers and dust.
  • Minimize cutting or breaking up of the asbestos-cement products.

As soon as practicable after the work is complete:
Clean up any asbestos-cement residues remaining in the work area using either a wet mop or a vacuum cleaner filter with a High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter. Mops should be cleaned by thorough washing in a sink connected to the sewer or septic tank system. It is unsafe to use a domestic vacuum cleaner due to the poor containment of asbestos fibers and dust. Keep all asbestos waste wet until it is wrapped in plastic and sealed. The material must be disposed of in an approved manner.