Asbestos – what you need to know
Exposure to asbestos is an ongoing concern, but there are some younger members of the industry who have no idea what to look out for. Paul Skelton reports.
“There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos fibres,” Asbestos Education Committee chairman Peter Dunphy says.
“With at least one in three Australian homes containing asbestos, many home owners, renovators, tradies and handymen are putting their health and the health of their families at risk when doing home renovations, maintenance and demolition if they release dangerous asbestos dust and fibres that can be inhaled and lead to asbestos-related diseases including mesothelioma.”
The scary thing is, despite all the warnings there are members of the plumbing industry who don’t know the signs of asbestos, or the dangers of exposure.
Mesothelioma is a cancer that mostly affects the lining of the lungs and develops between 20-50 years after inhaling asbestos fibres. There is no cure and the average survival time after diagnosis is 10-12 months. Inhaling asbestos fibres may also cause other diseases such as lung cancer, asbestosis and benign pleural disease.
Since 2003, approximately 600 Australians have been diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma each year and experts have estimated that there were at least another 1,350 Australians with lung cancer caused by asbestos.
It is estimated that these figures will continue to rise in the coming decades.
“We know that Australia has one of the highest rates of asbestos-related diseases in the world because Australia was among the highest consumers of asbestos products until a complete ban of asbestos came into force in Australia in 2003,” Peter says.
“However, there is still a high volume of asbestos-containing building products used prior to 1987 which remain hidden dangers in homes and buildings such as garages and farm structures so it’s critical that all Australians become asbestos aware.
“Many Australians wrongly believe that only fibro homes contain asbestos, with asbestos products still commonly found in and around brick, weatherboard, clad and fibro homes built or renovated before 1987.
Malignant mesothelioma is the most common of the asbestos-related diseases monitored in Australia. This is because there is a strong causal association between asbestos exposure and the disease.
A total of 11,667 people were newly diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma in Australia between 1982 and 2009, with men making up 85% of all cases.
That said, exposure to asbestos can lead to a number of other diseases:
This is inflammation of the outer lining of the lung – the pleura (where asbestos fibres are deposited). The pleura stiffens and thickens widely (diffuse thickening) or in patches (plaques), and can fill with fluid.
This is scarring of the lungs by inhalation of large quantities of asbestos fibres: the lung becomes
inflamed and scarred (stiff) making breathing progressively more difficult. Symptoms include tightness in the chest, dry cough, and in the later stages, a bluish tinge to the skin caused by lack of oxygen. Asbestosis is usually seen in former asbestos miners, asbestos manufacturing workers and insulation workers, and usually takes a decade or more to develop.
Exposure to asbestos fibres greatly increases a person’s risk of developing lung cancer, particularly if they are also a smoker.
HOW TO IDENTIFY ASBESTOS
“No one can tell if a product contains asbestos just by looking at it. Only scientific testing by an accredited National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA) can confirm if asbestos is present,” Peter says.
“So, if people aren’t sure if a product contains asbestos they should treat it as if it is asbestos and take all the necessary precautions to protect themselves.
“To be sure if asbestos is in homes, owners can have properties inspected by a licensed removalist or a licensed asbestos assessor to confirm if asbestos products are present.
“If in good condition and left undisturbed, asbestos generally doesn’t pose a health risk; however, with the ageing of homes, the popularity of DIY, renovating, knock-down-rebuild and with the redevelopment of old fibro home sites, it’s important that anyone working in or around homes or buildings constructed or renovated before 1987 know the dangers of asbestos and how to manage it safely.”
It’s a scary truth that asbestos could be anywhere: under floor coverings such as carpets, linoleum and vinyl tiles, behind wall and floor tiles, in cement floors, internal and external walls, ceilings and ceiling space (insulation), eaves, garages, roofs, around hot water pipes, fences, extensions to homes, garages, outdoor toilets, backyard and farm sheds, chook sheds and even dog kennels.
This means plumbers need to be on high alert while working in older buildings.
Asbestos products can also be found buried beneath and around homes leftover from the original construction when it was common practice for builders and labourers to bury broken asbestos materials on building sites which can now be exposed when digging, gardening or redeveloping land.
In many coastal regions, ‘weekenders’ were often built from fibro (bonded asbestos cement sheeting) as low-cost holiday homes. In rural settings many buildings were constructed from fibro as a cost-effective means of housing farm equipment and stock. It was also widely used to construct ‘sleep-out’ additions to farmhouses and workers accommodation.
Asbestos building materials are described as either ‘friable’ or ‘non-friable’.
Friable asbestos is any material containing asbestos and is in the form of a powder or can be crumbled, pulverised or reduced to powder by hand pressure when dry.
Friable asbestos was mainly used in industrial applications.
Non-Friable asbestos is any material (other than friable asbestos) that contains asbestos. Non- friable asbestos cannot be crumbled, pulverised or reduced to a powder by hand pressure when dry.
Common uses for non-friable asbestos in buildings include: flat (fibro), corrugated or compressed asbestos cement sheets; water, drainage and flue pipes; and floor tiles.
Dr Mike Lindsay, the acting director of environmental health for WA Health says most people mistakenly believe asbestos is only found in roofs, fences or walls in older style houses. But, products containing asbestos can also include paper backing material on sheet linoleum, backing panels in meter boxes and vinyl floor tiles.
“These types of products pose little risk to health when they are in good condition and undisturbed. But, people need to take precautions when they are renovating or doing maintenance work to prevent asbestos fibres being released into the air,” he says.
“Asbestos containing products can be difficult to identify just by looking at them. So, if in any doubt, treat it like it is asbestos — just to be on the safe side.”
WA Health’s recommends:
– If doing maintenance, or renovating a house built before 1990, be aware it could have asbestos containing products and treat them with caution.
– If buying a house, ask that asbestos containing products be assessed as part of the building inspection report.
– Don’t use power tools to drill, cut, sand or remove materials containing asbestos, as this will release asbestos fibres.
– Never use a high pressure cleaner to clean asbestos cement roofing or cladding.
– If removing small amounts of asbestos containing products yourself, learn how to safely remove and dispose of them first.
– If in doubt, hire a licensed asbestos removalist and check that the work area is free from visible asbestos at the end of the job.
So, when it comes to asbestos it’s important to remember: 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.