What is asbestos and how dangerous is it?
Asbestos is a building and insulation material used extensively in building in the 20th century until its harmful effects became known. It is the chief cause of an aggressive cancer called mesothelioma, along with other fatal diseases.
It is particularly nasty because its fibres can be very, very fine—routinely below 20 microns in diameter, versus around 100 micrometres for a human hair—and when inhaled these fibres can lodge in the lungs and remain there for life. Fibres can accumulate and cause scarring and inflammation. Enough scarring and inflammation can affect breathing, leading to disease.
People are more likely to experience asbestos-related disorders when they are exposed to high concentrations of asbestos, are exposed for longer periods of time, and/or are exposed more often. The best example of this in recent times is the aftermath of the World Trade Centre attacks of September 11, 2001. Firemen, victims, and rescue workers involved have suffered asbestos-related cancers and lung problems because of the massive dose of asbestos fibres they inhaled in the aftermath of the collapse of the buildings. Instead of the usual 20-year onset of disease, some victims are showing signs of mesothelioma after only 10 years because of the high dose they were exposed to.
How can I identify Asbestos?
There is often a misconception that it will look like old insulation stuffing, or like plaster dust from a textured ceiling, but asbestos fibres are microscopic and cannot be seen by the naked eye. Also, asbestos was often mixed with other materials in the building process and is hidden within many commonly used building products. These two factors make asbestos very difficult to identify.
What type of products contain Asbestos?
There are two main types :
- Friable asbestos is loosely bonded and is potentially very dangerous because it can crumble and release fibres into the air.
- Non-friable asbestos is a bonded asbestos that is found in a number of building materials. It can become friable if it is weathered or damaged.
Friable asbestos was commonly used as lagging rope on water pipes, around the doors of old domestic heaters and inside fireplaces. Other uses have included the manufacturing of sheet vinyl flooring as backing and as loose insulation in a roof.
Asbestos was used in many products such as Hardiplank and textured ceilings. Other common uses were with roofing sheeting and guttering, various types of external wall cladding and Zelemite boards on switchboards.
If you find it in good condition, the best advice is to leave it alone. It should not be worked on or removed without seeking professional advice. Remember, even a small amount of its dust is potentially lethal. So, do not start work if you’re in any doubt.
How did Asbestos become so widely used in New Zealand Homes?
Initially asbestos was known as a versatile wonder product, associated with safety and industrial progress. It was strong, flexible, and impervious to electricity and fire. It was also cheap and adaptable—a useful replacement for wood and brick. With the advent of steam-driven power, heat-resistant substances were at a premium and asbestos also seemed the perfect solution for lagging boilers and steam pipes.
In Australia, James Hardie, a Scot who had migrated to Melbourne in 1851, started using it fibre cement in 1888 as a substitute for slate to roof railways workers’ huts. By 1917 his product, now named fibrolite, began rolling off his Australian production lines, and in 1938 he opened a factory in Auckland, New Zealand.
Soon fibrolite housing sprawled over the New Zealand hills. “The material can be cut, scored and sawed with the normal tools of trade. It is non-irritating to the skin and non-toxic” advertised James Hardie in 1955.
it was used in New Zealand until the mid-1980s, when its harmful effects finally became well understood.
Where am I likely to find asbestos in my home?
Most houses in New Zealand built before 1975 would have it products somewhere.
Asbestos containing products have a lifetime of 25 to 50 years, and when repairs, renovation or demolition takes place the asbestos is then exposed beneath cladding, ceiling tiles or flooring.
The DIY home renovator is often not aware of the hazards.
The greatest risks in order of severity are:
- Water blasting of asbestos cement roofs and decks
- Floor sanding to remove backing from it containing vinyl floors
- Removal of textured ceilings
- Disturbance of asbestos cladding around pipes
- Dust from building rubble containing ACM
- Fires in older buildings shedding
- Earthquake damage disturbing it cladding
What to do if you suspect asbestos in your home?
Do not panic. Asbestos materials in good condition are not a health risk and should be fine if you leave them alone. Just check their condition from time to time to make sure they have not been damaged or started to deteriorate.
Do not assume tradespeople working in your home know about it and the risks. If you are the homeowner, you have a responsibility to protect any tradesperson from exposure to it fibres.
Always inform a contractor or worker in your home if it contains, or might contain, asbestos, so they can plan to undertake any renovation or repair work safely. If you find it in poor condition, or accidentally disturb it, do not try to repair or remove the materials yourself. This should be handled only by a licensed contractor
If you must remove asbestos because you are renovating and it will be disturbed in the process, it’s essential you seek professional help to handle and dispose of it properly.
- Do not use a domestic vacuum cleaner
- Do not put asbestos waste into a home bin or skip bin
- Asbestos waste should be handled only by a licensed disposal site.
- Waste must be transported to these sites in suitable containers that prevent the release of asbestos fibres in transit.
I have found some asbestos in my home. What is the risk to my family?
Asbestos materials in good condition are not a health risk, so if you find asbestos you should leave it alone unless you plan on renovating and disturbing it. If the asbestos has been disturbed, the two risk factors to consider are the dosage and the length of exposure. For your safety, it’s best to get the area assessed and contained as soon as possible.
What are the dangers of DIY removal? How do you do it safely?
As with any DIY project, it pays to protect yourself. Always wear overalls, eye protection and a facemask – especially if your job is likely to produce dust. However, asbestos fibres are small enough to penetrate most masks, so never assume you are safe.
Asbestos dust can also settle on your clothing. This could be a serious health risk to everyone you encounter. So, before you crack on, stop, and think about where you might come across asbestos in your home. It could save your life.
Can I safely remove or test for asbestos myself?
As a homeowner, you can choose to test for asbestos yourself. We recommend you leave asbestos testing to the professionals, but if you want to do it, we recommend you take the time to learn the risks and the right way to keep you and your family safe.
There is a lot of inconsistent advice out there on risks of exposure and safe ways to test. The most important risk to consider is that when you cut or disturb potential asbestos fibres to remove a segment for testing you are potentially changing it from encapsulated, safely contained, non-friable asbestos to friable asbestos.
Remember: you cannot see the microparticles of asbestos dust, so you can’t know whether or not you have exposed yourself to the deadly fibres. Therefore, we adopt and recommend a strict safety protocol, imagining the worst-case scenario as best practice to protect you from exposure.
Our recommended DIY testing protocol:
Collecting a sample for asbestos identification
The first step is to take a small sample of the material you want to be tested for asbestos.
This is a simple thing to do, but there are basic safety precautions you must take.
Here is our step-by-step guide:
- Make sure there is no one who will walk through the area of testing.
- Keep pets out of the way and be especially mindful of children.
- If you are testing from a ceiling, ensure plastic drop cloths are placed under your ladder.
- Collect your ceiling sample with a container ready to catch any falling debris that may become loose from scraping.
- Wear an appropriate respirator: Ordinary dust masks are not effective in preventing the inhalation of asbestos fibres and dust. You should wear either a half-face filter respirator fitted with a class P1 or P2 filter cartridge, or a class P1 or P2 disposable respirator appropriate for asbestos. Respiratory protection devices should comply with New Zealand Standard 1716. This number will always be displayed on the mask. To ensure that the respirator is effective, users should be clean-shaven, and the respirator should have a close fit.
- To prevent any contamination, wear disposable overalls and gloves.
- Wet the material to suppress dust release.
- Carefully collect a sample using hand tools rather than power tools (sample size should be 5-100 g). We recommend using pliers with the inside edges protected with a wet wipe.
- Place the sample (including the wet wipe if used) in a click-lock plastic bag.
- Double bag your sample in a second sealable plastic bag.
- After sampling, you should use paint to seal any broken material with the potential to cause airborne asbestos dust.
- Do not use a domestic vacuum to clean up any loose debris. Double bag your disposable overalls, drop sheet, and gloves and dispose of any materials used during the test at a disposal facility licensed to take asbestos.
Get in touch with us if you are concerned.