Where Asbestos is commonly found
More than 10,000 Australians died from the rare cancer, mesothelioma caused by asbestos in the last 35 years. This means Australia has the worst death rate from this disease in the world, second only to the United Kingdom. It does not end there. Cancer specialists predict a further 25,000 deaths in the next 40 years. In 2014, there were 641 deaths from mesothelioma, and the figures indicate asbestos-related deaths are slowly increasing.
Asbestos in Australia
Australia had a huge asbestos mining industry centred mainly in West Australia, New South Wales and Queensland until asbestos health hazards became better understood. The asbestos mining town Wittenoom in West Australia stands deserted as a harsh reminder of its past. The area is too dangerous and the West Australian government recently removed its status as a town. It stands today waiting to return to dust.
The distribution and use of asbestos products across Australia means it is widespread in buildings and homes built before 1990. Since Australia banned asbestos of any kind in 2003, there has been increasing numbers of people diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases (lung cancer and mesothelioma, for example) in every Australian state. Asbestos has a latent period of between 20 and 30 years after exposure before symptoms can show up.
Where you find asbestos
Asbestos is still everywhere though Australia we talked about it recently here. It was banned however for production, use and import in 2003. Its uses were wide and varied, and asbestos may still be found in old products such as:
- cement sheeting used for buildings, water and sewerage pipes, as fire protection products, to protect electrical wire and in switchboards, and for tanks for holding chemicals
- asbestos paper used in wire insulation, floor underlays, components in small appliances and in mats used for heat protection
- asbestos textiles used in heaters, roofing materials and some packing materials
- in automotive parts like brake linings and clutch facings
- sealants, paint, floor and ceiling tiles, gaskets and packing products.
Asbestos around the home
Buying an old house may bring you problems if it has asbestos products. So how do you know? You cannot tell just by looking at asbestos. You need a professional analysis to be sure. A house built after 1990 is unlikely to contain asbestos. Homes built from the mid-1980s to 1990 will probably contain asbestos, and those built before the mid-1980s are very like to have asbestos. So where are you likely to find it round your home? Here are some examples:
- Asbestos insulation around old water pipes and flues – these release dangerous fibres if not handled correctly when removing or repairing them.
- Roofing materials and shingles – these are not likely to release fibres unless you drill, saw or cut them.
- Siding (Fibrolite products, for example) and cladding for interior and exterior walls (such as the backing on some old brick cladding popular in the 1970s).
- In fibro sheets under the eaves, so be careful when renovating as it will release dangerous fibres if you break it (today modern fibro does not contain asbestos).
- Asbestos thermal boards around old fireplaces – when removing these they must be handled using safety precautions as they will release airborne fibres when you disturb them.
- Gaskets around old fireplace doors – worn asbestos gaskets release dangerous fibres when worn and still in use.
- Old artificial embers and ash, some old hairdryers, old fencing, ironing board covers, stove top covers, glues and fireproof gloves were made containing asbestos for its fire resistance.
There is no one place in Australia you can be safely confident of buying a property without asbestos in it if built before 1990. Australia began phasing out production of asbestos products in the 1980s with asbestos flat sheeting phased out between 1981 and 1983, corrugated products in 1985, asbestos pipes in 1987, and brake pads and brake lining in 2003.
Asbestos is completely banned in Australia. No new materials containing asbestos are allowed into the country. However, as recently as 2015 a Senate enquiry found building products imported from China contained white asbestos and dozens of building sites were contaminated with these imports. Authorities are now working with the installers to remove all imported products that contain asbestos.
Asbestos is slowly being removed from Australian homes as people renovate, demolish and rebuild, but it will be many years before Australia has cleaned up asbestos completely. But, its health effects will be a reminder of the devastating effects of Australia’s history of asbestos use.