Safe practice around asbestos – whether in the home or workplace – is crucial for looking after your health and your family’s health. Exposure to toxic asbestos fibres can cause health issues in the future – something no one wants for themselves or their families.

Asbestos disease kills an estimated 4,000 people every year – double the annual road toll. That’s 10 Australians every day.

Did you know that Australia has one of the highest usage rates of asbestos in the world – despite having a ban on the product since 2003? That means that asbestos materials are still in millions of homes and workplaces, so knowing the risks and how to be safe is crucial.

What are the risks?

Exposure to carcinogenic asbestos fibres can be deadly. There is no known safe minimum exposure, so it’s important not to have a “she’ll be right” attitude.

Asbestos fibres are invisible – and once inhaled there is no way to stop the potential for health impacts.

Asbestos disease kills more people annually than breast cancer or bowel cancer.

Australia has one of the highest rates of asbestos-related disease in the world and trades people that work in homes (such as electricians, plumbers, carpenters and builders) are among the most at-risk professions for asbestos exposure.

Asbestos was used in over 3000 common building materials before it was banned and it’s estimated that millions of homes still contain these materials.

If a building was built or renovated prior to 1990 there is a high chance it contains asbestos.

The dust from drilling into just one sheet of fibro could harm the person that drills into it, the people standing next to them, or the family member washing their clothes later.

Diseases like mesothelioma – contracted from inhaling asbestos fibres – have no cure. Your best protection is safe practice today.

Where might you find asbestos in the residential environment?

If you’re working in residential environments – such as renovating homes – there is a strong chance you’ll come into contact with asbestos.

Asbestos was used in Australian construction materials for decades and wasn’t completely banned until 2003. After the bans came in to place, many companies who manufactured products which used to contain asbestos then moved to making identical products that did not contain asbestos.

Asbestos can be found in many parts of homes – many which are not commonly known:

Outside – older fences, sheds and outbuildings also commonly contain asbestos. These products are at high risk of weathering and deterioration due to exposure to the elements.

Roofs and walls – these are some of the more commonly known locations for asbestos: walls and cladding (particularly fibro), roofs, eaves, and downpipes.

Floors – many flooring products used to commonly contain asbestos, particularly in the bonding cements and glues, which can easily become exposed if you are ripping up or changing your floor covering. Linoleum and lino tiles are the biggest culprit but the bonding agent used with tiles are also a risk, as are some carpet underlays and linings.

Kitchens, Bathrooms, Laundries – older kitchens, bathrooms and laundries are likely to have asbestos products. Pulling up tiles risks exposing asbestos used in bonding agents, and asbestos was often used behind splashbacks and other waterproof areas, such as in showers and laundries. The walls of these rooms have a strong chance of containing asbestos.

Pipes, electrical, fuse boxes – trades people working on electrical or plumbing should be aware of the risks. Asbestos was commonly used as lagging around pipes, in electrical areas and even in the back of old fuse boxes.

Safe practice

If you suspect a home or commercial building contains asbestos, the best (and often cheapest!) course of action is to have a professional assess the building and remove the asbestos if it is found.

This way, you can be sure that the asbestos will not only be removed and disposed of correctly but you can keep yourself, your family and the surrounding neighbourhood safe from exposure.

You wouldn’t always think it, but getting a professional is often cheaper – not to mention safer – than attempting to remove it yourself. The costs of correct equipment, removal and disposal add up fast, not to mention take up more time than to have a professional do the job.

It is a requirement for all commercial buildings in Australia to maintain an asbestos register so it is important to ask to see this prior to carrying out any work in a commercial building. However this is not the case in the residential sector and most home owners will be unaware if they have asbestos within their home.

Some general best safety practice tips in case you unexpectedly come into contact with asbestos materials are:

DO NOT use power tools
DO NOT use abrasive cutting or sanding discs
DO NOT use compressed air high-pressure water hose or brooms to sweep the waste up
DO NOT use a home vacuum cleaner to clean up dust if you suspect it is asbestos – this risks circulating fibres into the air
DO NOT walk on corrugated asbestos-cement roofs as you may run the risk of falling through
DO NOT cover it over as this only hides it which could result in someone accidently cutting into it in the future
DO get the material tested by a NATA-accredited laboratory if you are unsure if it contains asbestos

Above all, it is important not to give in to the ‘she’ll be right’ mindset in order to get the job done faster. Even though asbestos fibres are invisible to the eye, they are lurking in more places than most people know and you can easily take them home with you on your clothes, hair or equipment to your family.

Be aware – and be safe.