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Frequently asked questions for homeowners and the general public

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Some common questions answered.

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About asbestos

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral containing strong fibres that have excellent durability, fire resistance and insulating properties. However, if disturbed and fibres become airborne and are inhaled, it can pose a health risk.

How do I know if a material in my house contains asbestos?

You can't tell if a building material contains asbestos just by looking at it. Careful examination of a sample using specialised microscopic procedures can be completed at a NATA accredited laboratory to confirm whether a material contains asbestos.

As a general rule, if your home was built before 1990, it is likely to contain some asbestos materials. A knowledge of building products that contained asbestos can help to assume asbestos is present Asbestos was used in more than 3000 products and applications and it is estimated to be in one in three homes across Australia.

Do new building materials contain asbestos?

No. Since 31 December 2003, asbestos and all products containing asbestos have been banned throughout Australia. It is illegal to import, store, supply, sell, install, use or re-use these materials. The ban does not apply to asbestos previously installed (e.g. asbestos in houses).

What should I do if I find asbestos in my home?

You don't need to remove asbestos. If materials containing asbestos are in good condition (i.e. undamaged, undisturbed), the safest option is to leave them alone. The materials are not dangerous if undisturbed and sealed.

Before commencing your renovation, ask yourself or your tradesperson these questions:

  • Can you avoid disturbing asbestos materials?
  • How much asbestos material will you remove (<10 m2)?
  • How will you or your tradesperson dispose of asbestos waste?
  • How will you stop your exposure to fibres or that of your family or neighbours?
  • Who will you use to do the job
  • Are you aware of all the risks?

Health effects

What can happen if I am exposed to asbestos fibres?

Breathing in asbestos fibres has been linked to asbestos-related diseases, all of which can be fatal. Asbestos-related diseases have a latency period of up to 40-50 years before they make take effect.

Currently there are no cures for these diseases.

What is the likelihood of a person developing an asbestos-related illness?

The likelihood of any particular person developing an asbestos-related illness depends on a number of factors, including:

  • duration and frequency of time a person is exposed to airborne asbestos fibres
  • concentration or levels of asbestos in the air breathed
  • individual susceptibility
  • size and type of asbestos fibres
  • other factors, such as cigarette smoke. (Research has shown that smoking significantly increases the risk of lung cancer in people who have been exposed to asbestos.)

What is asbestosis?

A chronic lung disease that can lead to respiratory impairment and to diseases such as lung cancer. Asbestosis causes widespread interstitial fibrosis (scar tissue between the alveoli, spread over the lung).

It is difficult to distinguish from other causes of interstitial fibrosis and only confirmation of exposure to asbestos or detection of unusually high numbers of asbestos fibres in the lung is considered conclusive evidence of this disease.

What is mesothelioma?

A cancer of the lining of the pleura (outer lung lining) or of the peritoneum (the lining of the abdominal cavity).

  • It is a rare disease - incidence is 1 in every 100 000 for males and 0.3 in every 100 000 for females.
  • Asbestos is not the only cause of this disease, but it is the most important cause in modern times.
  • It is typically dose-related, but in rare cases has been known to occur in patients with little known occupational exposure to asbestos.

Testing for asbestos

Can I get materials tested for asbestos?

Yes. Laboratories that analyse building materials for asbestos can be found by contacting the National Association of Testing Authorities. The laboratory or an asbestos consultant can give you advice on how to correctly take and send a sample. There will be fees involved. Check online or use a telephone directory and search under 'asbestos'.

Home renovation

What if I accidentally break asbestos?

If you accidentally break a material containing asbestos, the safest way to manage any health risks is to wipe up any dust with a damp cloth or paper towel, put the cloth/towel into two plastic bags, tie them up individually and put them in your rubbish bin.

If the material containing asbestos is cracked, you should seal the crack with a product like PVA glue or paint. If it is more significant damage, the entire sheet should be replaced and the old sheet disposed of correctly. Always follow safe work procedures when working with asbestos.

What if I need to put a hole in a bonded material containing asbestos?

If it is necessary to put a hole in a bonded material containing asbestos (e.g. for a chimney), it is safer to remove the whole sheet, replace it with non-asbestos sheeting (e.g. plywood, plasterboard, fibre cement sheeting) and cut the hole in the new sheeting. Laws and safe work procedures will need to be followed when removing the sheet.

I'm considering doing a renovation

Householders may carry out minor repairs on asbestos cement materials, as long as the recommended safety precautions for these activities are followed.

Never use power tools (such as power saws, drills, sanders and angle grinders) or high pressure water blasters on asbestos materials. Remember, if your asbestos product is loosely bound together or it easily crumbles under hand pressure (known as friable asbestos) you must use an A Class licensed removalist to complete any removal work.

What safety precautions do I need to take?

If you are carrying out maintenance such as painting or sealing on asbestos cement that will not release any fibres into the air, then take the usual precautions for these activities (such as working in a ventilated area).

However, if you plan to disturb asbestos materials by cutting, drilling or removal, it is important to take the proper precautions for handling asbestos to avoid risking your health or the health of your family.

Will I do my own renovation or get a licensed professional to help?

Home renovators and tradespeople have a legal responsibility to make sure they protect their own and others’ health by not releasing asbestos fibres during their work, or leaving behind asbestos dust after a task is completed. Before you disturb any building material you must check whether it is likely to contain asbestos (or assume it does). If it contains asbestos, you must also know how to avoid exposing yourself or others to airborne asbestos fibres.

How much asbestos material can I or my tradesperson remove?

If more than 10 m2 of asbestos is to be removed then you will need to use a licensed asbestos removalist or obtain a certificate under Department of Health arrangements. For removal of amounts less than 10 m2, adequate precautions will still need to be taken to avoid exposure to asbestos fibres.

How do I or my tradesperson dispose of asbestos waste?

Contact your local regional council to find out whether you can dispose of asbestos as a domestic ratepayer or whether asbestos can only be disposed of through a licensed waste contractor. There are weight limitations for transporting asbestos waste and it must be contained by wrapping it in thick plastic.

How do I or my tradesperson stop my family or neighbours being exposed to asbestos fibres?

Using safe work procedures will help ensure asbestos fibres do not become airborne. In addition, you or your tradesperson will need to take precautions to capture any fibres, such as laying down plastic to capture any debris, wearing personal protective equipment and preventing people entering the work area. Clean up and decontamination will also need to be done safely to avoid spreading fibres.

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