Unintentional Asbestos exposure is still occurring
Most of us are acutely aware of the devastating effects of asbestos and its tragic human toll: diseases such as mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer. You might not think it could happen to you or to your children, but sadly, that’s not the case. The very people being diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases are younger than ever before. They have no history of having been exposed to asbestos in the traditional ways: in the workplace, through washing the clothes of exposed miners (para-occupational exposure) or through living in close proximity to asbestos mines or asbestos processing plants. Exposure to asbestos is occurring in the home, in the context of DIY home renovations. The effects of asbestos are now intergenerational. The real tragedy of this lies with the fact that young children are being exposed to asbestos in the very environment that is supposed to protect them from harm … their homes. With the possibility of such an insidious killer lurking close by, it’s critical to identify whether your home might contain asbestos. So, what is asbestos and what does asbestos look like?
What is asbestos?
‘Asbestos’ is a term that covers a diverse group of six fibrous silicate minerals obtained through the mining process: actinolite, riebecktite, amosite, tremolite, chrysotile and anthophyllite.
These coloured minerals are naturally occurring. Sizeable deposits of blue asbestos (riebecktite) were found in Wittenoom in the Pilbara region of Australia. Even closer to home, the Dayboro mine, just over 40 km from Brisbane, was another source of asbestos until its eventual closure. Its close proximity to asbestos processing plants in Brisbane itself means that thousands of Brisbane homes are riddled with asbestos. Brisbane had at least two asbestos factory sites: one at Newstead (operated by James Hardie) and the other at Gaythorne (operated by Wunderlich). Both locations are now epicentres of two significant mesothelioma clusters. More than 20 people have now been diagnosed with the disease after having lived within a short distance of the factories.
A common misconception about asbestos-related disease is that you must have worked at a mine or processing plant to have been exposed to asbestos. Not so. In the aftermath of World War II, resources and labour were diverted back away from wartime enterprises. The population boom that followed the war soon led to massive demand for affordable housing—a housing boom. Houses had to be built quickly and cheaply to meet the demand. Asbestos was seen as the ideal solution to a multitude of problems associated with the construction of homes in Brisbane from the 1940s through to the early 1980s. In fact, it was popular for a number of reasons:
- it was readily available from local areas, minimising haulage costs
- it was cheap
- it had superior tensile strength
- it was incredibly versatile
- it had great fire-retardant qualities, as well as insulating and soundproofing properties.
Increasing demand for asbestos was due to the relative ease with which it could be manufactured into durable and cost-effective building materials. Before its spectacular fall from grace, asbestos was credited with lowering building costs and placing home ownership within the reach of many ordinary Australians.
Eventually, a connection was made between asbestos and lung disease. Prohibitions on the use of some forms of asbestos were introduced as early as 1967. Unfortunately, a national ban on the use of all asbestos did not come into effect until 2003. Sadly, by this stage, asbestos had already infiltrated thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Brisbane homes.
Why asbestos is so dangerous
Exposure to asbestos poses a very significant long-term risk of life-threatening, if not fatal, lung disease. This is because asbestos dust or fibres can lodge in the lungs or other organs of the body. Exposure to asbestos can result in malignant conditions such as mesothelioma and lung cancer, but also in equally devastating, non-malignant conditions such as asbestosis and changes to the pleura (the thin, double-layered membrane protecting the lungs) including thickening or the formation of pleural plaques.
If you’re diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease, you’re set on a treadmill of invasive, painful tests and treatment, as well as years of diminished quality of life. You might also face the emotional toll of participating in stressful and lengthy litigation for compensation, if you choose to go down that path. To date it’s estimated that asbestos-related diseases are responsible for more than 10 000 Australian deaths. The numbers are steadily climbing.
Types of asbestos you might find in the home
Essentially, asbestos used in home building materials falls in one of two categories:
1. Bonded asbestos or non-friable asbestos
Non-friable asbestos is the name given to asbestos that has been ‘bonded’ with other substances (e.g. concrete), or contained within building materials by mixing it with concrete and it therefore cannot be easily crumbled or reduced to dust. Examples include asbestos cement sheeting and vinyl tiles.
2. Loosely bound asbestos, loose-fill asbestos and friable asbestos
Loosely-bound asbestos, loose-fill asbestos or ‘friable asbestos’ are names given to asbestos that can easily be crumbled or reduced to dust with the application of light pressure. This type of asbestos is particularly dangerous because of its propensity to turn to dust with minimal pressure and become airborne. Examples include sprayed roof insulation.
Places where you might find asbestos in your home
Because of the versatility of asbestos and its many uses, building materials or other items containing asbestos can be located almost anywhere in your home, from floor to ceiling and beyond. Here are just a few places that asbestos might be lurking in your home:
- wall and ceiling linings/linings of eaves
- electrical meter boards
- roof (learn more about our roof inspections here)
- vinyl floor coverings, such as tiles
- contaminated carpet underlay, such as that made from re-using and recycling hessian bags that had been originally used to transport asbestos
- cement sheeting and wall cladding
- insulation in and under wall heaters, and in chimney flues.
Even if your property was built after asbestos was outlawed, asbestos could still be present if second-hand or old building materials were used in its construction.
When you should look for asbestos
You should always be mindful that asbestos could be present in your home or in your dream home. It’s critical to be on the lookout for asbestos if you are renovating. This could range from something as small as ripping up old carpets and underlay and replacing them, right through to a full-scale extension or complete demolition and rebuild.
You should also be on the lookout for asbestos in any property that you are considering purchasing. Asbestos removal can be an incredibly costly and inconvenient exercise. Knowing that your dream home is asbestos-free can give you and your family peace of mind.
So, what does asbestos look like?
Asbestos is a cunning master of disguise. It won’t always look the same. Differences in appearance are dependent upon:
- which particular silicate mineral was used (this affects the colour)
- the extent to which it was processed or changed into building materials
- if non-friable asbestos, the type and appearance of the material it has been bonded with
- how that material may have degraded over time.
Asbestos in one type of building material will often look completely different to asbestos in another type. Making the mistake of thinking you know what asbestos looks like can be a potentially fatal trap for the unwary.
DIY asbestos testing kits—are they the solution or just another part of the problem?
Do a quick Google search and you’ll find dozens of do-it-yourself asbestos testing kits on the market. Whilst they do comply with requirements that asbestos be formally identified by a NATA-accredited laboratory (National Association of Testing Authorities), reliance on these tests can be dangerous for several reasons. In using the test you could place yourself at grave risk of exposure by disturbing building materials containing asbestos. Also, you might not be aware of just how many forms asbestos can take and just how extensive the distribution of asbestos might be throughout your home. You might miss testing a section in your home because you think it looks innocuous only to later discover it actually contains asbestos. Using a DIY test can give you a dangerous, false sense of security.
The only way to know whether a home contains asbestos is to ensure that a thorough and professional building inspection is carried out by a person who knows exactly what asbestos looks like: a fully qualified, experienced and licensed professional. The identification and removal of asbestos must be left up to licensed asbestos assessors and asbestos removal supervisors. Samples of the suspect material must be sent to a laboratory accredited by the National Association of Testing Authorities for analysis. Asbestos removal is regulated by legislation, codes of practice, local council by-laws, Queensland Health and the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection.
Tragically, there are more than 10 000 reasons why the identification and removal of asbestos is now so heavily regulated and scrutinised. Lives depend on getting it right.
Trust Action Property Inspections to thoroughly and professionally inspect your home and advise you on the range of options for safe asbestos removal. If you have any concerns about asbestos in your Brisbane home, talk to our inspector immediately.