Asbestos and Your Home
While the average Australian has likely heard of and has some knowledge of asbestos and the associated health risks, unless you work in the housing, building or construction industries, this knowledge is likely to be quite limited.
Due to the versatile and durable nature of asbestos, its usage in the construction and housing industry was vast and varied. Commonly mixed with other elements, asbestos was a component of many common building materials. And these building materials had many different uses, meaning that the areas and ways asbestos may have been used to construct a home are numerous, and in some instances, surprising.
In addition to the vast uses, a difficulty surrounding asbestos building materials is that they are not easily identified just by looking at them, which can result in people unknowingly disturbing asbestos containing materials resulting in the release of fibres, which is what can harm your health.
While you don’t need to be an expert on asbestos, if you are purchasing a home, already a homeowner, or planning to renovate, it’s a good idea to arm yourself with information about asbestos. Let us tell you more about how, why, and what asbestos was used for, as well as where you may find it in your home, and what you can do to keep safe.
So, What is Asbestos Exactly?
Asbestos is a group of naturally occurring minerals found in rock formations. These minerals are comprised of millions of small and flexible fibres that are bonded together, and this forms an almost indestructible, durable, and lightweight material.
There are 6 different types of asbestos, each of which were found and used in Australia:
- Crocidolite (Blue Asbestos)
- Amosite (Brown Asbestos)
- Chrysotile (White Asbestos)
Blue, Brown, and White asbestos were the types that were most used in the Australian building industry.
Up until 1983, asbestos was mined in Australia, predominantly at Wittenoom in Western Australia and Woodsreef in New South Wales. There were also smaller asbestos mining operations in Tasmania and South Australia.
Asbestos is not unique to Australia and was previously mined and used in numerous countries around the world. In fact, the use of asbestos in numerous applications is still allowed in certain countries. While in some countries where the use of asbestos has been banned domestically, the mining operations for the export market are still being maintained.
What Was Asbestos Used For?
In addition to being durable, lightweight, and essentially indestructible, asbestos is an excellent electrical and thermal insulator and is able to withstand decay and erosion from water. This long list of attributes made asbestos products highly desirable to the housing and construction industry in Australia and at the height of its popularity was ubiquitous throughout Australian homes and workplaces.
Once asbestos was mined, it could be broken down into loose fibres, which could be used alone or mixed with other materials, such as cement. This versatility saw asbestos become a popular material used to create countless products and building materials. In Australia, the most common usage of asbestos was the manufacturing of building products.
The Australian Housing Industry and Asbestos
The manufacturing of asbestos building materials began in the 1920s in Australia, with their usage in the construction of residential buildings starting in the 1940s, just post the end of World War II.
The most common way asbestos was used in building products was mixed with cement, with cement sheeting and cement moulded products being the by-product of this.
Asbestos building materials were commonly used up until the late 1980s, when the dangers of asbestos fibre exposure were becoming more and more recognised.
The phasing out of asbestos cement materials began in the late 1980s, and by the end of 2003, the manufacturing and usage of any form of asbestos was banned.
While some states and cities saw more usage of asbestos building products, it was not limited to a specific state, city, or town.
Not every home will contain asbestos building materials, but homes built between WWII and the 1980s have a chance that asbestos materials may be present in one form or another.
Houses built from the late 1980s and early 1990s also have a chance that there may be asbestos materials present in the home, however, this is less likely than those built prior as the manufacturing and usage of the asbestos building materials had slowed considerably.
Homes built from 2003 onwards should not have any presence of asbestos or asbestos materials.
What is Wrong With Asbestos?
While asbestos had many positives when it came to its use in building materials, these positives could not outweigh that asbestos was found to cause Asbestosis, Lung Cancer and Mesothelioma, all of which are incurable.
These illnesses are caused by breathing in, inhaling, swallowing, or ingesting asbestos fibres. Asbestos fibres, when airborne, can remain in the air for some time. They are also able to travel great distances by wind as they are incredibly lightweight.
Asbestos fibres are not visible to the naked eye which can leave people unaware that they are present or that they have been exposed to or even ingested them.
Asbestos fibres can become airborne through either the degradation of natural asbestos deposits, or the breakdown of products that contain asbestos as a component.
When it comes to asbestos containing building materials, they can be categorised as either friable or bonded products, both of which can release asbestos fibres.
Asbestos Building Materials: Friable & Bonded
As we just touched on, building products containing asbestos are classified as either friable or bonded (non-friable) products.
Friable Asbestos Building Materials
Friable asbestos building products usually contain a high level of asbestos, and in some instances, they may even contain 100% asbestos. The usage of friable products was less common than bonded materials, however, they were still present in a number of homes. Soft and loose in nature, friable products, when they are dry, are generally able to be crumbled into a fine dust with very little pressure, even rubbing it between your fingers could cause it to breakdown.
As it is soft and loose already, friable asbestos products can be easily disturbed, and the asbestos fibres can become airborne. One thing to note, asbestos (both friable and non-friable) is not water soluble (i.e. the fibres will not dissolve in water).
Bonded (non-Friable) Asbestos Building Materials
Bonded or ‘non-friable’ asbestos products are those that have been made by combining asbestos and a bonding material, such as cement, which makes them solid, rigid and durable.
Commonly used in building, these products usually contain substantially less asbestos than friable products. One of the most common bonded asbestos building products is cement sheeting.
Unlike friable asbestos materials, bonded materials are unable to crumbled or be turned into powder or dust by hand pressure. However, while these products are durable and strong, they can become damaged through natural occurrences, like fire or hail; or direct activities like drilling, which disrupts the asbestos fibres, and can render the bonded non-friable building product to become a friable one. This is when it becomes a risk to human health.
In most instances, the presence of bonded asbestos building materials doesn’t automatically pose a risk to you and your health. If undisturbed and in good condition, there is little risk associated with being in contact with them.
Common Asbestos Building Materials
While building products such as cement sheeting and cement moulded products were some of the more well-known materials to contain asbestos, the ways in which they were used is quite varied and may not be as quite as well known.
In addition to these products, the hugely versatile nature of asbestos saw it being used as an additive to many other less obvious or known building products. Asbestos was durable, cheap to manufacture, and easy to use, which saw it being used in many applications throughout a home.
Some of the building materials that contained asbestos, and how they were used include:
1. Fibre Cement Sheeting
One of the most common building materials used in a home, fibre cement sheets were made from mixing asbestos fibres with cement. The asbestos fibres in the cement sheeting made them perfect for use in areas that would be exposed to water and heat because the presence of asbestos made them resistant to heat and moisture, and exceptionally durable.
Asbestos cement sheeting is a bonded asbestos product, and if undisturbed, it is less prone to release asbestos fibres.
USES: Commonly used for external cladding, internal wall lining, ceiling lining, roofing and fencing.
2. Loose Fill Insulation
This is a loose, friable asbestos building material that was used for insulation in homes. Loose fill insulation was a popular solution, particularly in NSW, as it was cheap and easy to install – often sprayed into a space through a hole in the ceiling or wall.
When loose fill insulation had asbestos in it, it was usually at a high concentration, sometimes even 100%. Loose fill insulation is friable, and asbestos fibres can be liberated with minimal disturbance and easily become airborne. Though not as prevalent as bonded asbestos materials, the dangers of loose fill insulation that contains asbestos far outweighs that of bonded materials.
USES: Mainly used as insulation in wall spaces and roof cavaties.
3. Low Density Fibre Boards
Similar in appearance to asbestos cement sheeting or plasterboard, low density asbestos fibre boards contain fibres that are lightly compressed. The amount of asbestos in a low-density fibre board varies – in some instances, up to 70% of the board can be made with asbestos fibres.
Though it presents like cement sheeting, low density fibreboards differ as they are not bound with cement, rather the asbestos fibres are bound with a calcium silicate plaster.
Because of the low density of the fibre board, it can be soft upon touch, and easily damaged, which can release asbestos fibres. If intact and in good condition, it is considered a bonded asbestos product, however as it is easily damaged, it may be assessed to be friable depending on its condition and application (including likelihood of disturbance given its use).
USES: Low Density Fibre Boards were mostly used in wall and ceiling panels, particularly in floating ceilings.
4. Vinyl Floor Tiles and Covering
Popular flooring options like vinyl floor tiles, linoleum, or lino can contain asbestos. Because of its durability and insulative properties, asbestos was commonly added to floor tiling materials.
In addition to the tiles themselves being made with asbestos fibres, some vinyl floor coverings were affixed with asbestos containing adhesives, or in the case of vinyl sheet, it may include an asbestos backing layer. This backing was to have a cushion affect and was often felt like in appearance. These fibrous backing layers are easily damaged (particularly during removal) and considered friable.
USES: Mostly found in kitchens, bathrooms and laundries, due to the water resistance properties of asbestos.
5. Corrugated Cement Sheeting
Like standard asbestos cement sheeting, corrugated cement sheeting contains asbestos fibres mixed with cement. Its durability and design made it useful for exterior applications, like fencing and roofing.
When asbestos cement sheeting is painted, it helps to seal in asbestos fibres, however, unlike standard asbestos cement sheeting, in many instances, a lot of corrugated cement sheets were not painted as they were being used in roofing and fencing and thus more exposed to the elements. This exposure to potentially harsh weather conditions can lead to a faster degradation of the cement that bonds the asbestos fibres, which increases the likelihood of fibre release.
USES: Corrugated cement sheets were predominantly used to build fences, roofing, and sheds.
A common practice in construction was to mix asbestos fibres into many types of adhesives. Cements, sealants, grouts, putties, and mastics, with the addition of asbestos were used in applications where a strong and durable adhesive was required. The addition of the asbestos made the adhesive able to greatly withstand heat, and essentially be fireproof.
Some of the most common adhesives where asbestos was present are:
- Cement Adhesive – a joint compound used where there is great exposure to heat, such as boilers, stoves, chimneys.
- Lagging Adhesive – predominantly used in heating & cooling systems and plumbing to insulate and seal pipes.
- Sealants – used to join roofing materials.
- Asphaltic cutback or Black Asbestos Mastic – a black tar-like adhesive used to bond tiles and other floor coverings.
- Emulsion adhesive – a synthetic adhesive that was used to bond timber or wood to synthetic laminates.
- Fibrous Adhesive – usually applied with a brush or sprayer, this liquid adhesive is known to break down over time, releasing asbestos fibres into the air.
Each of these adhesives is a bonded asbestos material, however, though the majority were long-lasting, they do break down naturally over time or due to wear and tear. Along with external mechanisms of disturbance (particularly during removal) these factors can lead to the release of asbestos fibres.
USES: Asbestos adhesives were used all throughout home construction including affixing wallpaper and wall panel; ceiling tiles glued with asbestos adhesives; roofing sealants; wood floors, vinyl tiles and other floor coverings were often fixed in place with asbestos adhesives; joint sealant around doors and windows; lagging around piping particularly in bathrooms and kitchens.
7. Compressed High Density Floor Sheets
A compressed cement sheeting that is usually used in interior wet areas as a substrate below tiling. This type of sheeting is exceptionally durable and essentially immune to water damage.
A bonded asbestos material, undisturbed, this type of sheeting does not pose a risk if present in your home.
USES: Predominantly used in kitchens, bathrooms and laundries underneath ceramic tiling.
8. Cement Moulded Products
The materials used to create cement sheeting could also be moulded onto any surface when wet. The strength and durability of this cement and asbestos mix meant that it was perfect for areas that may be exposed to weather elements and water.
Uses: Guttering, pipes, and downpipes were all commonly made with cement moulded products because of this longevity and ability to withstand high usage.
Asbestos in Your Home: Where You Can Find It
Though the usage of asbestos building materials has been banned since 2003, if your home pre-dates 1990 there is the possibility that some form of asbestos materials may be present in your home.
Identifying asbestos and asbestos building materials isn’t as simple as having a quick look around your home, rather it takes the practice of removing small samples from various areas of your home and having them tested in a NATA accredited lab.
While you can’t identify whether something contains asbestos just by looking at it, you can be aware of some of the places that you may find asbestos in your home.
Let’s take a look at where in your home some of these asbestos materials can be found.
The structure of any home needs to be durable, weather resistant and strong – and with asbestos’ ability to withstand many conditions and its versatility, it made sense that many building products used to build a home’s structure had asbestos present.
Many of the asbestos building products mentioned earlier, and some others, were used in one way or another to build a home’s structure, some of the ways in which they were used structurally include:
- External Cladding – usually made of asbestos cement sheeting.
- Render – made with sand, cement and asbestos fibres.
- Roofing – corrugated cement roof sheeting.
- Internal Walls and Ceilings – commonly asbestos cement sheeting was used for strength and insulative properties.
- Roof Cavity & Wall Insulation – loose fill insulation made with, or entirely of, asbestos fibres, were known to be used.
- Eaves & Gables – lightweight asbestos cement sheeting was used to make eaves.
- Guttering & Downpipes – made from moulded asbestos cement.
- Infill Panels above windows and doors – usually lightweight asbestos cement sheeting was used as these were usually not load bearing but would enhance fire resistance and improve insulation.
- Putty & Sealants – sometimes these adhesives were mixed with asbestos fibres to add a level of heat, fire, and water resistance. Used in metal framed windows and doors, as well as roofing.
Home Interior (General):
Inside the home, asbestos building materials uses ranged from structurally, to decorative elements, insulative purposes, improving fire and water resistance and as adhesives. Areas where asbestos building materials may have been used include:
- Internal Walls and Ceilings – wall sheeting and/or low-density fibre boards were used, both for their insulative properties and fire resistance. They are usually lightweight in nature.
- Internal Angle Mouldings and Architraves – usually made of asbestos cement sheeting, providing a decorative element to windows, doors and ceilings.
- Plaster – used on walls and ceilings, some plasters used asbestos in the manufacturing process. Asbestos containing plasters improved fire resistance.
- Heating Ducts – lagging cloth which contained asbestos fibres, and other asbestos materials were used to insulate pipes in heating and cooling systems.
- Carpeting – carpeting underlay, made from recycled hessian bags mixed with other materials, was on occasion used underneath carpet. This was also affixed with some adhesives that contained asbestos.
- Other Flooring – Some vinyl floor tiles contained asbestos fibres. However, in addition to this, the backing materials used to help insulate and pad vinyl and linoleum flooring sometimes contained asbestos fibres as well. Like carpet underlay, this flooring was sometimes affixed with an asbestos containing adhesive.
Home Interior – Wet Rooms (Bathrooms, Kitchens, Laundries)
Asbestos building materials were largely resistant to long term water damage, making them particularly useful and versatile in the “wet” rooms of a home, such as the kitchen, bathroom & laundry. Ways in which they were used include:
- Piping – asbestos cement piping, used to supply water and for sewerage disposal.
- Hot Water Pipe Lagging – lagging is a type of adhesive that was used to insulate piping.
- Sheeting under floor tiles – high density cement sheeting that would help in waterproofing underneath tiling and providing strength.
- Vinyl flooring – a popular option as the asbestos addition made them somewhat water resistant and last longer.
- Laminate benchtops – usually constructed of a compressed fibreboard, if damaged can release asbestos fibres.
- Cupboard lining – in older kitchens, some cupboards had vinyl lining, which like vinyl flooring can contain asbestos fibres, or be affixed with an asbestos containing adhesive.
- Kitchen and Bathroom Splashbacks – a decorative wall panelling, sometimes known as Tilux, this would be made from a compressed fibrous cement sheet that would be affixed to the wall in wet areas as they were both waterproof and decorative.
- Oven Door Seals – due to its heat resistant capabilities, asbestos was used in a rope like material to make oven door seals. This would help keep the heat of the oven in.
Home Interior – Miscellaneous
- Fireplace – insulative asbestos materials like millboard and cement were used around and under fireplaces for its heat resistant properties. In addition to this, flues and ventilation made of asbestos cement materials, as well as asbestos fibres used in the brick and mortar of chimneys, and the insulative materials lining chimneys, allowed them to be long lasting.
- Wood Heaters – similar to oven doors, some wood heaters may have asbestos rope in the door gasket to seal the door and contain the heat.
- Hot Water Boiler/Heater – asbestos materials were used as lagging on pipes, as well as insulative materials blanketing piping and water heaters, insulative and heat resistant boards under water heater.
- Electrical Boards – backing boards containing bituminous asbestos materials were used in some power boxes and electrical boards. They sometimes contained insulating cement sheeting or millboard for further protection.
Like the structure of a residential home can contain asbestos building materials, many homes have outdoor structures that were built with these building materials. These structures include:
- Car Ports
Asbestos materials were used in the construction of these outdoor structures, in a similar manner to those in the structure of the main home and internal areas. Some of the more common ways in which asbestos building materials were used in outdoor structures include:
- Corrugated Roofing – corrugated cement sheeting.
- External cladding – asbestos cement sheeting.
- Insulative cement sheeting – asbestos cement sheeting.
- Render – a mixture sand, cement and asbestos fibres.
- Plaster – a composition of lime, cement, or gypsum with water, sand and asbestos fibres.
- Eaves – lightweight asbestos cement sheeting.
- Guttering and piping – moulded asbestos cement.
- Garden – asbestos cement materials were sometimes used in outdoor and garden accessories, such as planters, garden beds, and mailbox stands. In some instances, on older properties, old asbestos containing building materials have been found discarded and sometimes buried to discard them. This can lead to asbestos contaminated soil.
- Fencing – asbestos containing cement fencing is commonly known as Super 6 and corrugated in appearance. It was also sometimes used for roofing as well.
- Power board – electrical metres, power boards, and fuse boxes sometimes contained multiple asbestos materials, including cement sheeting, millboard, insulation board and bituminous materials, as they were insulating, waterproof and heat resistant.
What is the Likelihood of a Home Containing Asbestos Materials?
Asbestos building materials being present in your home is almost solely dependent on when your home was built.
As mentioned earlier, if your home pre-dates 1980, the likelihood of your home having some sort of asbestos based building material is very high. The chances of asbestos building materials being present decreases in homes built from 1980s onward, with homes built between 1980-1990 likely to have some asbestos building materials and 1990 onwards the likelihood is slim but not impossible.
Can I Live in a Home with Asbestos?
Just because your home may contain asbestos building materials doesn’t mean that it poses a danger to you. The vast majority of materials that contain asbestos within Australian homes are bonded materials, where the asbestos fibres are not easily liberated unless disturbed or damaged.
In most instances, the likelihood that you will be exposed to asbestos fibres is low, however, it is not impossible. Some of the ways in which you can be exposed include:
1. Natural Degradation Through Wear and Tear
Over time, you may see the natural wear and tear of asbestos materials in your home. In most homes, these materials are bonded, and the durable nature of asbestos makes them long lasting. The asbestos materials on the exterior of homes in most instances are more likely to break down sooner than those situated internally as they face additional degradation from weather.
2. Accidental Disturbance, Usually During Household Maintenance
Simple home maintenance can lead to the disturbance of asbestos materials, for example using power tools to cut, grind, drill or sand surfaces. High-pressure water blasting of bonded asbestos materials can lead to delamination of the material resulting in widespread contamination of surrounding areas with a water and cement slurry containing asbestos fibres. Contamination of a site due to this type of incident is notoriously difficult to clean up.
3. Home Renovations
During home renovations or demolitions, if your home does contain asbestos materials, the likelihood of disturbing them increases significantly.
Health risks may be low (depending on exposure), to reduce potential risks all precautions should be taken. The hierarchy of risk control is as follows: Elimination (removal of the hazardous material i.e. asbestos); Substitution (Replacement of the hazardous materials with a non-hazardous alternative); Engineering Controls (such as those implemented by a Licenced Removal Company during removal operations); Administrative Controls (such as those under which a Licenced Removal Company operates and are enforced by the regulator); PPE (Personal Protective Equipment, the last resort…where all other controls have been exhausted, put on a suit and mask).
How Do I Know If My Home Contains Asbestos Materials?
Knowing the time frame of when your home was built will certainly help to understand whether there is a chance that your home could contain asbestos building materials.
However, unless your home has undergone asbestos testing, it is difficult to identify asbestos materials visually.
To confidently identify asbestos building materials, an asbestos test should be undertaken. A licensed asbestos testing service will remove small samples of possible asbestos containing materials in a safe way and will have them tested by a NATA accredited laboratory. These materials need to be tested in a lab qualified to do so because asbestos fibres are so fine that they are not visible to the naked eye.
Reducing Your Risk of Exposure
Whether you are aware that your home contains asbestos building materials, or you believe that it may, there are a number of things you can do to avoid exposure to asbestos fibres.
1. Educate Yourself of Asbestos Materials Possible Whereabouts
As we’ve noted, the types of and ways in which asbestos building materials were used in home construction is vast and varied. Though many of the materials can last for years undisturbed and in good condition where they pose little to no risk, being aware of where they may be present can allow you to ensure they remain in good condition.
2. Take the Possible Presence of Asbestos Materials into Consideration When Home Maintenance and Renovations are on the Cards
If you are undertaking maintenance of a material that is worn, or you are planning a larger renovation, ensure that you plan around the possibility of asbestos being present. This includes following safety precautions whether you are working on a small DIY project or planning a major renovation. If you are at all unsure of the building materials you may encounter whilst undertaking such work, materials testing may be the appropriate solution.
3. Replace or Remove the Asbestos Materials
If you are aware that a material is asbestos based, consider replacing it. Even if the material is undisturbed you can remove future risk by removing the material and replacing it with a non-asbestos alternative.
As there are a number of legalities around the removal of asbestos materials, including the types, and volume with which you can remove yourself, consider engaging with a licenced asbestos removal company. They will ensure that the materials are safely removed from your home and disposed of safely and legally.
Understanding Asbestos with Greenlight
At Greenlight we provide a number of services that can help you identify and understand your risks to asbestos exposure.
We provide services that include, but are not limited to, residential asbestos inspections, asbestos materials testing and asbestos air monitoring.
Residential Asbestos Inspections
Our residential asbestos inspections can serve a number of purposes including:
- Pre-purchase inspections – we can inspect properties that you plan to purchase and help identify possible asbestos issues
- Pre-Renovation inspections– we will investigate areas that you plan to renovate, regardless of the scale of renovation, we can do a thorough inspection and assessment of the materials present
- General Home-Safety – even if you are not planning on renovating, gain an understanding of asbestos materials in your home through this service
- Loose-Fill inspections – if you do have loose fill insulation in your roof cavity, we will sample the material and have it laboratory tested as part of the inspection.
Asbestos Materials Testing
As part of this service, we can either accept samples from you or have a consultant come to your home to safely collect samples of possible asbestos materials in your home. Sampled materials are laboratory tested and we provide a comprehensive report including assessment of the types of materials and their condition.
Asbestos Air Monitoring
This service involves atmospheric monitoring for the presence of respirable fibres (including asbestos) and is required where the removal of friable asbestos materials is being undertaken or where bonded materials are being removed if this work is taking place indoors or there may be an impact on neighbouring properties.
Our service catalogue has been designed in such a way to ensure that we can provide you with an understanding of the presence of asbestos in your home, (or future home) so you can make informed decisions when it comes to home renovations, maintenance and your overall safety.
Whether you suspect your home contains asbestos building materials, you plan to renovate, or you just want peace of mind, engaging with us can get you the answers you need to make an informed decision about home safety.