Detecting and Removing Asbestos from Your Home

21st July, 2017

As a homeowner, your odds of facing asbestos in some form or other are about one in three. Get to know this infamous substance a little better by reading our guide to identifying asbestos-containing products and disposing of them when necessary.

First, though, a small disclaimer: While this post covers a few of the basics regarding asbestos and asbestos removal, it should by no means be your only resource. Asbestos is a hazardous substance and exposure can have very real, potentially life-threatening consequences. As such, asbestos should be approached with extreme care. Having the support of a professional or a government official is highly advisable. We suggest consulting the Queensland Government website, which has a host of material on safety techniques and efficient removal procedures.

OVERVIEW: What exactly are you dealing with?

“Asbestos” can be a frightening word—and, in many cases, rightfully so—but scientifically speaking, it’s simply a term used to describe a number of minerals found in nature’s rock formations. The distinguishing feature of asbestos is that, when mined and broken apart, an asbestos mineral produces fibres (or bundles of fibres) that can easily filter into the air. When blended with other materials and kept carefully intact, asbestos fibres pose little threat. However, once the fibres are airborne, they can travel a long way and settle in inconvenient locations—even inside the human body.

The Dangers of Asbestos are well documented

In Asbestos: A guide for householders and the general public, the Queensland Government reports, “When asbestos fibres are breathed in, they may remain deep within the lungs. They can lodge in lung tissue and cause inflammation, scarring and some more serious asbestos-related diseases, which usually take many years, if not decades, to develop.” Absestos-related diagnoses include a wide range of illnesses including mesothelioma, a devastating cancer that was at the centre of South Australia’s largest compensation ruling earlier this year following a legal battle over asbestos exposure.

Clearly asbestos is a dangerous material and one that’s not to be taken lightly. But keep in mind its deadly effects are usually only felt after prolonged contact, and that proper management and care of substances containing asbestos can reduce many of these alarming risks.

As a homeowner, you may have some concerns as to whether or not your house contains asbestos materials—particularly if you’re planning on making some renovations that might stir fibre-laden dust into the air. We don’t blame you.

DETECTION: How do you know where to find it?

If you’re at all worried about asbestos, the most logical questions to ask yourself are of course: “Can I be sure if there’s asbestos on my property?” and “How will I be able to tell?” These tips attempt to provide some answers.

When trying to determine whether there’s any asbestos present inside or outside your home…

Do Not Trust Your Own Eyes

As eagle-eyed and observant as you may be, the sad truth is that asbestos fibres can’t be identified with the naked eye. Be aware that asbestos detection will rely on research and common sense and not on plain sight.

Consider When Your Home Was Built

Asbestos was a highly popular part of building construction throughout most of the 20th Century up to the 1980s. Between 1980 and 1990, asbestos materials began to fall out of fashion, and, by December 31, 2003, Australia implemented a complete ban on the use, sale and manufacture of any substance containing asbestos. If your home was constructed before 1990, there’s a fairly good chance there’s asbestos present somewhere. Conversely, if your home was built after 2003, it’s likely it contains no asbestos whatsoever.

Still, the Queensland Government estimates about one third of Australia’s residences have an asbestos product in use somewhere on the premises.

Research the Types of Asbestos Products That May Have Been Used

Say your home dates from 1965 and you’re fairly certain you have asbestos lurking around your house. Be aware that there are two kinds of asbestos products: friable and bonded.

Friable products

are more volatile and can be easily ground into a fine powder or dust. They also contain very heavy concentrations of asbestos. This makes them doubly dangerous; their weak consistency and high level of asbestos mean their asbestos fibres can easily be dispersed into the air.

Bonded products

on the other hand, mix lower concentrations of asbestos with a bonding compound like cement and are much stronger than their friable counterparts. Unless a bonded product is disturbed by weather (think Cyclone Debbie), renovation construction, cleaning procedures or something similar, it carries a comparatively lower risk.

Get to know every corner of your home and educate yourself as to which type of asbestos product you’re likely to have on site. Proceed with caution (especially if the products seem delicate or pliable) and take note as to whether the substances appear to be friable or bonded. This will stand you in good stead if you decide to renovate or redecorate.

Note: Any and all friable asbestos products should only be removed by a licensed Class-A asbestos professional.

Familiarise Yourself with Common Asbestos Locations

When searching for asbestos, remember it can be hiding in or around a number of household materials. These include (but are not limited to):

  1. Vent pipes
  2. Gutters and eaves
  3. Imitation brick
  4. Backed sheet vinyl flooring
  5. Sheds or carports
  6. Underlays for various tiles or carpets
  7. Concrete roof tiles, roof sheeting and roof clapping
  8. Cement sheet walls
  9. Fences
  10. Fireboard wall and ceiling panels
  11. Exterior cladding

Your search should therefore be exceedingly thorough and should cover both the inside and outside of your home. You may even want to obtain an asbestos survey to guide you through your investigation and to help you assess any risks.

Hedge Your Bets

When it comes to asbestos, it’s never a bad idea to assume the worst. The Queensland Government advises that, if you have any doubt as to whether or not an item contains asbestos, you should presume that it does and proceed accordingly. Better to take unnecessary precaution than to gamble with your own health or the health of your family, friends or neighbours.

Get a Certified Test

Unless you’re handy with a microscope, the best and most efficient way to be 100% certain of the presence of asbestos is to have your home materials tested in an accredited laboratory. Australia’s National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA) can point you towards a reputable lab, as can a licensed asbestos removalist. NATA can be contacted at 1800 621 666 or at www.nata.asn.au.

REMOVAL: How can you get rid of it?

If you do discover asbestos on your property, don’t panic. Bonded, undamaged asbestos products reportedly pose very little risk, and smooth and safe removal—should you decide on this course of action—is only a phone call away. And, if you’re feeling ambitious, you may even be able to carry out disposal on your own. Always bear in mind, however, that complete, effective removal is a complex procedure. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.

Confused? Hire a Professional

The handling and management of asbestos in Queensland is subject to public health legislation, meaning the local government is required by law to ensure public safety surrounding asbestos-related activities. There’s no shame in calling on certified removalist—they’re legally obligated to be good at their job. If you’re at all concerned about your own asbestos removal skills or if you’ve chosen to give your home any type of makeover, contact an accredited professional.

Removalists will be especially helpful if you decide to undergo major property renovations that could violently disturb your asbestos products and eject carcinogenic fibres into the air. And, as mentioned earlier, certain asbestos products should only be removed by licensed individuals. Questions? Further concerns? Don’t hesitate to get in touch with your local environmental health officer for all manner of recommendations. Also, remember:

Ensure Safety First

Decided to go it alone? If so, always play it safe. The Queensland Government offers step-by-step guides to home removal processes in the form of pamphlets and videos. Read them. Watch them. Take them to heart. And never underestimate the power of common sense. During removal, keep family, friends and innocent bystanders out of harm’s way. Ventilate your workspace if you can, but minimise the spread of fibres by shutting your doors and windows and turning off fans when disturbing interior materials. A few other tips:

  1. Line your work area with a double layer of plastic (such as two plastic drop sheets, each at least 0.2 mm thick) and do the same to a separate area over which you can remove your disposable work clothes
  2. Keep asbestos product surfaces damp to contain the spread of fibres
  3. Use binding agents such as shaving cream when drilling holes into asbestos in order to further reduce airborne fibres
  4. When in doubt, remove a whole product rather than try to break it apart or cut it
  5. Clean your workspace thoroughly and clearly label all asbestos waste
  6. Ask your local council about where to dispose of the waste or hire an approved asbestos waste contractor to take care of the waste instead

If you think your health has been compromised or have any medical questions, the Queensland health advice hotline can be reached at 13 HEALTH (13 43 25 84). Similarly, you can get pointers on safe asbestos removal by calling 13 QGOV (13 74 68)

Employ PPE & Other Appropriate Tools

Common sense applies to your own personal safety as well. Queensland recommends wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) at all times during asbestos removal. PPE should be durable but disposable and should include:

  • A P1 or P2 respirator that complies with Australian Standard 1716 (a normal dust respirator won’t do)
  • Boot covers
  • Hooded coveralls
  • Eye protection
  • Gloves

See the Queensland Government’s asbestos resources on their website (http://www.deir.qld.gov.au/asbestos/) for more information on how to dress properly when coming into contact with asbestos.

In addition, take extra care regarding the tools you use when handling asbestos. Avoid high-pressure equipment such as cutting or sanding discs, power tools or water jets when interacting with an asbestos product. Also stay away from vacuum cleaners when clearing any dust or debris. Other smaller, hand-operated appliances should be kept at low speeds to decrease fibre spread (for example: Queensland local government strongly suggests setting drills to below 650 RPM when removing nails in an asbestos sheet).

Again, should any problems arise or should you feel at all unsure of yourself during the removal process, your best bet is to seek professional help. Err on the side of caution and take no risks where your life is concerned.

We encourage you to gather as much information as possible before proceeding with any activity that may put you face to face with asbestos. As with any home endeavour: be responsible and stay safe.

Best of luck, and if this all seems to hard you know who to call!

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