Australians face significant risk from asbestos as a boom in home renovation activity is accompanied by poor practices and lack of knowledge of asbestos related hazards, new research has found.

In its latest research, the Asbestos Safety Eradication Agency surveyed 1,506 ‘home improvers’ who are undertaking home renovation work either on a DIY basis or by outsourcing work to builders and tradespeople.

All up, it found that knowledge and awareness of asbestos was lacking whilst practices in many cases are poor.

The report found that:

  • All up, two-thirds of Australians are ‘home improvers’ and have undertaken home improvement work over the past five years.
  • Of those who have undertaken renovation work, 38 percent have worked on a property which was constructed between 1940 and 1990 and is most likely to contain asbestos.
  • Whilst 92 percent of those surveyed were able to correctly identify at least one potential source of asbestos when prompted by a list, this number fell to two-thirds when participants were asked for unprompted suggestions about where asbestos may be found.
  • Whilst many of those surveyed identified the likely presence of asbestos in walls (64 percent), roof insulation (52 percent) roof sheeting (44 percent) and outbuildings (42 percent), less than a quarter were able to correctly identify items such as textured paint and plaster (25 percent), fences (23 percent) or electrical switchboards (19 percent) as potential asbestos risks.
  • More than one quarter (28 percent) of home improvers who have encountered asbestos admit to having used inappropriate disposal methods. This most commonly involves placing the asbestos in rubbish or recycling bins (sometimes wrapped, sometimes as loose fill), burying it or simply painting over the material.

Not surprisingly, the report found that financially vulnerable DIYers along with multicultural young urbanites were most susceptible to either low levels of asbestos knowledge or substandard risk management practices.

The latest research comes as a boom in DIY and home renovation activity has taken hold as more time spent within the home and restrictions on travel has led to greater spending on home improvement.

All up, Australian Construction Industry Forum expects almost $47 billion to be spent on home renovation work in 2021/22 followed by almost $48 billion in 2022/23.

With this comes a heightened risk that more people will be exposed to asbestos.

Prior to being banned in the mid-1980s, asbestos was widely used in building products throughout Australia and is commonly found in houses which were constructed before 1990.

Whilst the material poses little health risk when it is good condition and left undisturbed, any asbestos which is disturbed can release fibres which when inhaled can cause asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.

This can happen when the material is disturbed by drilling, cutting, grinding, sanding or being subjected to high-pressure water hoses.

Asbestos Safety Eradication Agency CEO Justine Ross said notions about asbestos being a problem of the past are wide of the mark.

Around 700 cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed in Australia each year and the estimated annual health system expenditure for mesothelioma is more than $27 million annually, Ross says.

She adds that on current estimates, more than six million tonnes of legacy asbestos remains in the built environment and that the material is believed to be present in one in three homes nationwide.

On current rates of disposal, asbestos is likely to remain in significant amounts until at least 2060.

“For anyone who thinks asbestos-related diseases are a thing of the past, think again,” Ross says.

“Asbestos is still causing cancer in Australians.”

Ross says ASEA is using technology to better understand the location and density of asbestos around Australia.

Toward this end, the agency is using artificial intelligence to develop a national residential asbestos heat-map.

Once complete next year, this will enable better targeting of awareness and removal programs along with better targeted provision of infrastructure and resources such as waste disposal.

Ross says asbestos risk can be managed but stresses the importance of caution.

“We want to see Australians treat asbestos with the same caution as electricity,” Ross said.

“People working on homes built before 1990 can stay safe if they know where asbestos is, if they don’t disturb or damage it, and if they seek professional help to locate, manage or remove it.”