Here’s what the experts say you should do about asbestos, which is likely to be in any home built before 1993, writes Alex Brooks for the Sydney Morning Herald.
Hearing the word asbestos frightens the living daylights out of renovators.
“People think if they stare at it, they’ll go blind,” says Asbestos Professionals principal Vince Bradvica. “The media and James Hardy have scared the living hell out of people.”
Asbestos dust can kill you if it becomes airborne – so the scare is understandable.
The legacy of Australia’s obsession with building products made with the deadly fibre is a festering wound that’s been left largely to home renovators and builders to remove.
There is no well-organised – or affordable – asbestos-removal system in place for homeowners. It’s simply a matter of ‘oops, there’s some asbestos: now what should we do?’.
Marrickville renovator Tristan Hanlon discovered asbestos the dirty way when she was digging her vegetable garden. “I found a whole lot of ugly grey-green tiles buried in the garden and put them in a skip,” she says.
“The first I knew of it being asbestos was when I had three calls from the skip company telling me they couldn’t remove it without charging me an extra $400. Call me stupid, but I had no idea that what I was handling was asbestos – I always thought it would look more like fibreglass or something soft and dusty.” Hanlon didn’t use a mask while handling the material as she had no idea what it was.
Master Builders Association’s Peter Becker – who trains builders how to correctly handle and dispose of asbestos – says people shouldn’t be paranoid about asbestos, but must find out whether it is in their home and keep it in good condition.
“Try as little as possible to disturb it. If you find some and there is any damage to sheeting, then paint it with PVA glue,” he says.
Becker says asbestos roofing from the 1950s and 1960s is perhaps the most hazardous building material, as it has been exposed to the elements potentially allowing asbestos fibres to waft into gutters and drainpipes .“If you go out in your street on a windy day, you could breathe asbestos in from old rooves and materials in your area,” he says.
The president of the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association Ross Mitchell says most householders are unlikely to encounter friable asbestos – the most dangerous airborne fibres – but are likely to have bonded asbestos somewhere in their home.
“Up until the early 1990s, it was used in all houses. Asbestos isn’t just fibro. Electrical switchboards often have zelemite, a black tar board which has asbestos in it. Vinyl floor tiles can have it. We found fibro sheeting stamped ‘no asbestos’ still contained asbestos fibres once we got it back to the lab – the sheets had been contaminated somehow,” he says.
Mitchell recommends removal and replacement of old asbestos roof sheeting. “There are sealing systems on the market which make an asbestos roof look like new, but they cost around a third the price of removal,” he says. “We think sealing systems simply defer the problem when really we need to get asbestos back into the ground as safely as possible.”
Bradvica – who holds a class 2 asbestos removal licence – says a licensed contractor may work with a hygienist or environmental scientist to monitor the clean-up and then obtain a clearance certificate from WorkCover.
“The small jobs are hard to get around to – it’s easier to do one $1million job than ten $100,000 jobs if you’re in this business. I don’t enjoy charging a humble mum and dad $2000 to remove their asbestos, but someone’s got to do it.”
Decker worries that well-trained asbestos removal contractors are busy with large jobs and only smaller, less-skilled contractors will be available for householders to call upon for asbestos removal.
“There are plenty of cowboys out there. I had a lady ring me up because she employed someone to remove some fibro. A few days later she was gardening and found the fibro had just been shoved under her house,” he says.
“Authorities try to scamper from the issue by asking for more stringent measures but shouldn’t we be making it easier for people to get rid of asbestos, not harder?”
This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald