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  • Asbestos and home renovations – What is really happening in Australian homes

    November 2019

    Whether you are an Owner-Builder, tradesperson or just love a bit of weekend DIY home renovations, asbestos lurks as a hidden, deadly and silent danger for the unaware.

    Article by Suzanne Burke

    It is a known fact that asbestos and inadvertently inhaling asbestos fibres and dust are directly linked to fatal and incurable diseases such as Lung Cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma. Asbestos is no longer mined in Australia and is now a banned product, but sadly, the dangers of asbestos do not remain in the past.

    The use of asbestos in Australian homes built or renovated prior to 1990 was widespread. This means there are stacks of Aussie homes with asbestos in-situ in various forms. If and when asbestos is disturbed in any way – such as performing DIY maintenance or renovations – asbestos fibres and dust can be released into the air. If these are inhaled by yourself, family members or others, they are all at risk of developing a fatal and incurable disease that may not manifest itself until many years later.

    As a specialist renovation builder, the team at Amerex Renovations and Additions come across asbestos in almost every home they renovate. Steve Burke, the Managing Director at Amerex has over 30 years of building experience and more than 20 years of those specialising in building extensions to Perth homes. I asked Steve to share some of his experience with asbestos in home renovations over the years.

    Where do you most commonly find asbestos in homes you are renovating?

    Super six was a type of cement sheeting that was used everywhere across many of the established suburbs of Perth and is commonly found in fencing and roof sheeting. The use of asbestos was so widespread in construction prior to its ban in December 2003, that asbestos products still exist in a great many homes and in all sorts of places such as the eaves, internal and external wall cladding, ceilings, underfloor coverings such as carpet, vinyl and lino and more broadly in areas such as bathrooms, laundries, home extensions, sleep-outs, fences and more.

    At a current renovation project, we are even finding pieces of asbestos buried in the ground in the backyard. In the past, in the days before skip bins existed, it was not uncommon for builders to bury rubble in the yard.

    Who is at risk?

    Anyone renovating a home that contains asbestos is at risk. From the homeowner doing weekend DIY, to the young tradie (particularly apprentices who might not have heard of asbestos), owner-builders to any family members living in a home that is being renovated. If you are not sure whether your home contains asbestos you must get a professional in to provide advice before starting any renovations or engaging any trades. Do not assume that tradies will do the right thing, not all of them (sadly) are aware of the dangers of disturbing asbestos in the home. Always play safe with the health of your family and your own health.

    What does the home handyman need to be aware of?

    Many homeowners that undertake a renovation to their home as an owner-builder or even those indulging in a bit of weekend DIY can unknowingly disturb existing asbestos and put themselves and their family at risk of exposure to asbestos fibres and dust.

    Some typical examples of home DIY that Steve has seen that where people are putting themselves and family at risk include:

    • Drilling into asbestos wall cladding and releasing asbestos fibres into the air
    • Ripping up old floor coverings such as lino or carpet that have asbestos backing
    • Pulling down or attempting to repair damaged super six fencing
    • Undertaking partial demolitions, particularly with old sleep-outs

    Above image: Home extension in progress. All asbestos in the roof, gables and eaves has already been removed by a qualified professional.

    What trades are most at risk?

    Apprentices and young tradies are at risk because they either have not heard about the risk of asbestos, or they think it is a problem of yesteryear that they no longer need to worry about. This, of course, is completely false.

    Any trade undertaking demolition work – this is not just demolition workers, or could be any trade performing renovation work – is at risk if they are breaking up any roof sheeting or wall cladding.

    Electricians are at particular risk. Many of the old electrical switchboards have asbestos backing, so when a sparkie drills into this as part of maintenance or renovation work, they are disturbing the asbestos and putting themselves at risk. It is important that young apprentices are made aware of this risk as I am certain that there are many drilling into switchboards completely unaware of the risk to their health.

    Plumbers are another trade that can inadvertently put themselves at risk. Many older homes with timber frame bathrooms, laundries and toilets at the rear of their home are well overdue for renovation. In this instance, cutting into the asbestos wall sheets to allow for new pipes to service new appliances or plumbing fixtures puts plumbers right in the firing line.

    The most unexpected place I have found asbestos

    In one home that Amerex renovated, we were replacing the ceiling in a front bedroom. When we removed the sagging gyprock ceiling that was already in place, we were surprised to discover another ceiling behind it. This was made of asbestos sheeting. It looked like the previous owner did not want to pay to remove the asbestos so simply put in a new ceiling over the top.

    We obviously took the safe approach and closed the site and contacted professional asbestos removal specialists. The site did not become active again until it had been safely removed.

    “As a young tradie, I worked with asbestos on many occasions. Dust masks were rarely worn and safety on site was not as regulated as it is today. It is a mystery as to why asbestos-related disease strikes some people and not others. I can only hope that I am one of the lucky ones.”

    Safe removal is critical

    There are now strict rules and regulations that we must all comply with – to ensure our safety and safety of others – when removing asbestos from existing homes. As a professional renovator and builder, we always follow the rules to the letter.

    Above image: Replacing an old roof and extending a home at the same time. One area to get checked is to ensure that your home does not have loose asbestos insulation in the roof.

    The need for awareness and vigilance

    “I have a growing concern and sense of unease that there is an entire generation of tradies and homeowners that think asbestos is a problem of yesteryear.”

    Historically it was the asbestos miners that were first affected by asbestos-related disease. The mines were closed, but not in time for many. Then it was the wave of tradies working with asbestos. Sadly, this took its toll too. The use of asbestos is now banned. From what I understand the next wave of those affected are you and me. That is, it could be anybody that dabbles in DIY or home renovations. This has the potential to have an impact across the broader community ie. not just those working in construction – and indiscriminately affect men, women and children. Instead of diseases such as mesothelioma declining over time, there is a real risk that we are on the cusp of a new wave.

    Burkey’s Tip: There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos fibres.

    What can YOU do?

    • Make the safe choice and get your home assessed for asbestos before starting any home renovations, maintenance or DIY.
    • Support Reflections through Reality, a WA based not-for-profit organisation committed to reducing the impact of asbestos through research, support and awareness.

    Steve Burke and Suzanne Burke are the owners of award-winning building company Amerex Renovations and Additions. They have also authors of Nail Your Renovation without getting Screwed (Woodslane Press $34.99), a new book packed full of expert renovation advice and tips.