Asbestos: a silent time bomb

Ten years ago I sanded an internal fibro wall on a lean-to built, probably, in the 1970s. Was it asbestos? I’m not sure. But ever since it has played on my mind.

It certainly was a dumb thing to do, that’s for sure, when you consider the risks that sanding, cutting or otherwise disturbing building materials containing asbestos.

If I could go back to then, there’s no way I would touch it, at least not without getting it tested.

More than a million Australian homes are suspected of containing asbestos. The bad news is, if your place was built before 1990, it’s very likely to have at least one thing with asbestos in it.

And with the weather warming up, perfect for some spring time maintenance and renos, you have to wonder – how many people will get exposed this week, month or year?

Home renovators are being warned – stay clear of any material that could possibly contain asbestos. Don’t sand, saw or interfere with it.

Building products with asbestos in them are thought to be safe as long as they are not disturbed. But it’s when renovators start tearing down those walls or making changes that dust starts flying and tiny particles of the naturally occurring mineral, which are extremely sharp, become airborne.

Once lodged in a person’s lungs they stay there, resulting 10, 15, 20, 25 years later in cancer.

A recent study in the Medical Journal of Australia found there has been a surge in the proportion of women diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma after asbestos exposure during home maintenance and renovation. The West Australian study found that since 1981, there had been 87 cases of malignant mesothelioma in that state attributed to home renovations.

In the last four years of the study (2005–2008), home renovators accounted for 8.4 per cent of all men and 35.7 per of all women diagnosed with mesothelioma.

Worryingly too, the period between people exposed to asbestos during home renovation and their cancer diagnosis appeared to be significantly shorter than for all other exposure groups (such as asbestos miners and millers, and people who had worked directly with asbestos).

The study concluded that mesothelioma cases related to renovation will probably continue to increase because many homes still contain asbestos building products.

Cancer experts are calling home renovators with mesothelioma the “third wave” of asbestos-caused disease, coming behind miners and then tradespeople.

The major tragedy is even though countries such as Australia have now banned the mining and export of asbestos there are other nations – such as Canada – that are still digging it out of the ground and shipping it to other countries – many of them much poorer – where it is widely used in buildings.

Back in our own houses, spotting asbestos can be problematic, and its presence can often only be confirmed by laboratory testing.

It was used in everything from exterior fibre cement cladding and pre-1984 weatherboards, to artificial brick cladding, corrugated cement roofing and flexible building boards in eave and bathroom linings, and cement tile underlay.

Loose asbestos was also employed as an insulator around hot-water pipes, in old domestic heaters or stoves or in ceiling insulation products.

Even some old carpet underlays, made from recycled hessian bags, could contain asbestos because the bags may have been used to transport material containing asbestos before their reincarnation.

The challenge is knowing about the risk in the first place.

There’s an argument that home owners of properties being leased or sold should be forced to have an asbestos audit done and then reveal to future tenants and owners exactly where the asbestos is in the home.

There’s also a push from some quarters for the companies that produced asbestos products to partly shoulder the cost of its removal from residences.

Carolyn Boyd,

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