If you want to know about costs associated with asbestos in residential premises, you only have to ask the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) government.

As at December 31 last year, the Territory had spent more than $760 million repurchasing 948 homes and demolishing 916 more after houses across the ACT and parts of NSW were pumped with deadly loose-fill asbestos insulation in the 1960s and 1970s by a company which became known as Mr Fluffy.

Outside of buybacks, however, costs associated with asbestos removal fall to home owners. These costs typically measure in the thousands per house. According to a calculator on the web site of asbestos removal firm Aztech, removing asbestos containing sheeting in a large sized bathroom usually costs around $2,500 to $3,500. Depending on the size of the material, removing corrugated asbestos roofing could set households back anywhere between $2,500 to $13,500.

Not surprisingly, then, cost is significant barrier to household decisions to have asbestos removed. Indeed, a recent study by the Asbestos Safety Eradication Agency (ASEA) which involved survey responses from more than 2,000 people as well as focus groups found that the size and cost of removal was the single biggest barrier in household decisions to have asbestos removed.

In that study, three factors which influence household asbestos removal decisions were analysed: the size of material to be removed and the cost of removing it; the location of the asbestos and the effect of any government initiatives or incentives (free disposal, interest free loans and so on) to remove the material. Of these, cost accounted for 54 per cent of households’ considerations about whether to have asbestos removed. This was followed by the existence or otherwise of government initiatives (33 per cent) and location of the asbestos (14 per cent).

Not surprisingly, the importance of cost as a barrier increases as the size of the material and the cost of removal increases. For small jobs costing less than $500, size and cost were no barrier at all. On medium and larger jobs costing around $2,000 and $5,000 respectively, cost was the most significant out of any of the aforementioned factors.

In its report, ASEA said the impact of cost should not be underestimated. It said cost was shown to be prevalent as a factor in focus groups as well as the broader survey.

“Cost was, unquestionably, the primary barrier to removal expressed by homeowners during focus groups,” the report said.

“Most saw the cost of removal as being highly expensive, explaining that costs extended beyond simply removal and disposal; costs would also include replacement of materials and potentially additional unforeseeable expenditures.

“Unsurprisingly, homeowners had competing financial priorities, and most accepted that given the apparent lack of urgency surrounding asbestos removal, it was not a main concern.”

To help overcome these costs, the study found that well-targeted government initiatives could help. In particular, households in focus groups welcomed hypothetical suggestions about offsets in council rates, collection services for smaller volumes of asbestos and a reduced fee at the tip for asbestos disposal.

In addition to cost, income levels and a lack of urgency to remove asbestos were also found in focus groups to be important factors in decision making.

On incomes, those with low household earnings of less than $50,000 were consistently less likely to have asbestos removed over the next three to six months compared with those on middle incomes ($50,000 to $99,000) and high incomes ($100,000 and up).

As well, there was a lack of urgency to remove asbestos amid beliefs that the material was safe unless disturbed (provided that it is in a decent condition) and apprehension about disturbing it. Several focus group participants who had previously discovered asbestos in their homes had been told by their builder or another professional that the asbestos was safe to keep.

Brett Baker, chief executive officer of the Asbestos Contractors Removalists Association, says generalisations about the magnitude of costs associated with asbestos removal are fraught with difficulty as this depends upon several factors. These include the need or otherwise to avoid damaging surrounding material, whether or not the material is friable, and whether or not the material to be removed exceeds 10 square metres in size and thus requires a clearance certificate from an occupational hygienist.

Whilst cost is important, Baker says decisions are also influenced by perceived levels of danger. He says many who feel that risks are significant will have asbestos removed irrespective of budget constraints.

One factor which can influence this, he says, is demographics. Given the 30-year odd gestation period associated with asbestos related diseases, Baker says removal motivations are often less strong among older residents. Those with newborn children, meanwhile, have a more compelling incentive to ensure that their children grow up in a safe environment.

Going forward, Baker would like to see asbestos related inspections become mandatory at the point of sale of the home.

From there, he says one of two things could happen.

First, any asbestos discovered could be recorded on a central database maintained by local councils. This would be subsequently removed from the database after the material had been removed by a licenced contractor.

Alternatively, there could be requirements for any asbestos which is discovered to be disclosed as part of the sale process. This, Baker said, would not only help buyers to make informed decisions but would give those wishing to maximise the value of their homes an added incentive to have asbestos removed.

When it comes to removal strategies, although most Australians appreciate the dangers associated with a DIY approach, the above ASEA survey suggests that a significant minority do not. Among those who ranked their DIY skills as very poor, only three per cent say they would likely attempt to remove the material themselves. That, however, rises to 41 per cent for those who feel their DIY skills are very good.

Baker says people should always use a licenced contractor.

Australia has a problem with asbestos in homes.

For this to be addressed, sensible action to address cost and other barriers is needed.