As the housing boom encourages prospective home buyers to enter the market and home renovation shows inspire people to roll up their sleeves, fears that dangers associated with asbestos are being overlooked are growing.

Widely used in construction materials before being banned in 1987, the deadly substance remains present in many homes and commercial premises that were built before that time.

While many who have contracted asbestos related diseases thus far were exposed through occupational activities associated with asbestos mining, manufacturing and use in industry, concern has been growing for some time about a new generation of sufferers who are exposed by means of living or working in buildings which contain asbestos related materials. These premises may effectively be turned into health hazards where materials which contain asbestos deteriorate or are disturbed and asbestos fibres are released into the air.

In particular, there are concerns the growing popularity of DIY home renovation shows may prompt some DIY renovators to swing into action without paying as much heed to dangers of potentially disturbing asbestos when performing renovation work as should be the case. This phenomenon could be exacerbated as Sydney and Melbourne house prices rise and new buyers seeking to gain through the purchase and remodelling of older housing stock are tempted into the market.

Such risks should not be taken lightly; according to one study published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2013, more than 60 per cent of DIY renovators in New South Wales were exposed to asbestos as a result of renovation activity, as were half of their partners and 40 per cent of their children.

Brett Baker, president of the Asbestos Removalist Contractors Association in NSW, says home owners may potentially be unaware of the types of products that could potentially contain asbestos, the ways in which the material needs to be removed and disposed of, the precautions that need to be taken, as well as the equipment that needs to be used or worn. This could lead to situations, for example, where the wrong type of protective equipment is worn or the material is spread around the premises due to the wrong type of vacuum cleaner being used.

“Where people are unaware of what asbestos products are out there and are not trained to undertake the work in a professional and safe manner (and attempt to remove asbestos themselves), there is certainly an opportunity for future issues and problems,” Baker said.

Master Builders Association of NSW CEO Brian Seidler agrees that the problem cannot be understated.

“Many homes still have products that contain asbestos and many consumers or owners are probably  not aware of all of the products,” he said.

Speaking about the situation in NSW specifically (requirements differ in different states) Seidler says home owners are legally allowed to remove asbestos on their own but are required to follow set procedures as specified on the WorkCover website and on many other websites. He says the extent to which the house price boom will create more asbestos sufferers due to DIY projects will depend largely on whether or not those undertaking the work are cognisant about the dangers as a result of awareness campaigns and information on government web sites. Indeed, with the costs of disposing of the material within designated areas not being cheap, there is also a fear of the material being left by the road or dumped not far from urban growth boundaries or near nurseries, he said.

Baker, meanwhile, says approaches toward asbestos danger vary, with more diligent home owners checking with their local councils about correct processes and hiring a contractor where required. At the other end of the scale, many ‘rogues’ may simply not bother with these important safety measures.

Older Australians, too, can be somewhat blase about the problem without realising that they could be exposing their children or tradespeople to the lethal substance amid a belief that they themselves would not be affected due to the length of time asbestos related diseases typically take to develop.

He says home owners should consider obtaining a register to identify products which contain or could potentially contain asbestos and other hazardous materials which exist within their home, as well as an asbestos management plan to indicate what control measures can be adopted to minimise any risk with regard to any asbestos which is there. He would like to see both of these be made mandatory as a precondition of any home sales.

As for DIY shows, both Baker and Seidler say some do an adequate job of raising awareness about asbestos and other dangers associated with home renovation jobs, but others do not.

“The problem with the home renovation shows is that they don’t show you or really advise you too much about the dangers of asbestos,” Seidler said. “They may make a comment but generally you see the before and after product and they don’t show you what really happens.

“A demolition process is not a romantic exercise. You go at it with a hammer or you go at it with jack hammers to get rid of a lot of this stuff.”

Facts about Asbestos at a glance

  • Asbestos is a set of six different naturally occurring fibrous minerals which are microscopic in nature, and are extremely resistant to fire and most chemical reactions and breakdowns.
  • Prior to being banned in 1987, its flexibility, tensile strength, insulation from heat and electricity, chemical inertness and affordability meant it was was highly versatile and could be found in a wide range of building materials used in residential and commercial premises as well as on civil infrastructure. Products containing asbestos can include roof sheeting and capping, guttering, gables, eaves and flues, wall sheeting, carpet and tile underlays, cladding, fencing, carports and sheds, waterproofing membranes, concrete formwork, expansion joints, fencing and telecommunication pits, to name but a few.
  • Microscopic in size, asbestos fibres when inhaled cling to and become lodged within the respiratory system and are not easily expelled or broken down by the body. Exposure to asbestos increases the long-term risk associated with a number of asbestos related diseases including asbestosis, mesothelioma, lung cancer, ovarian cancer, and laryngeal cancer.
  • Asbestos-containing materials left undisturbed and in good order typically do not release asbestos fibres and are not dangerous. When the material is damaged or disturbed, however, asbestos fibres may become airborne and be inhaled into the lungs. This often happens during renovations where the substance is broken up or drilled, ground or cut into.
  • Laws governing the conditions under which home owners can remove asbestos and those under which licensed contractors must perform the work vary from state to state. Strict procedures must be followed regarding the removal and disposal of the material. Government authorities throughout Australia generally recommend that home owners engage licensed contractors to perform the work rather than attempting the work themselves.
  • A number of specialist companies provide services in which they check building materials within homes for the presence of asbestos. Recommendations from the Master Builders Association of NSW are that all areas should be checked and asbestos removed in areas subject to renovation prior to commencing the renovation.
  • More information about asbestos can be found at the Asbestos Awareness web site or the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency web site.