Healthy living

Asbestos

Asbestos fencing
Asbestos can be found in products around the home such as cement fencing.

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that was widely used in the manufacture of building materials and other products. In Australia the use of asbestos was phased out in the manufacture of building products through the 1980s and completely banned in 2003.

The 3 main types of commercial asbestos used in Western Australia are:

  • chrysotile (white asbestos)
  • amosite (brown asbestos)
  • crocidolite (blue asbestos).

Asbestos was processed and mixed with materials to produce a variety of products.

The most common product used in residential properties is asbestos cement. Asbestos cement products typically contain 10-15% asbestos.

Asbestos cement products pose little risk to health when they are in good condition and undisturbed. However, homeowners must take precautions when removing the products, renovating or doing maintenance work.

If you are buying a pre-1990 house, ask that asbestos containing products be assessed as part of the building inspection report.

Where were asbestos products used in homes?

Asbestos was added to building products to increase their strength durability, fire resistance and insulation properties. It is commonly found in:

  • asbestos cement roofs and eaves
  • indoor and outdoor asbestos cement wall sheeting
  • external feature cladding materials
  • asbestos cement fencing
  • paper backing material on sheet linoleum
  • backing panels in meter boxes
  • textured paints – especially in wet areas
  • vinyl floor tiles
  • thermal insulation boards around fireplaces
  • gaskets and rope door seal in wood stoves.
When did the manufacture and use of asbestos products cease in WA?

Asbestos cement products were commonly manufactured in WA from 1921 to 1987.

The manufacture, importation and installation of products containing asbestos was being phased out during the 1980s and was not used in building materials by the end of that decade.

However, chrysotile was still found in a number of products, such as brake linings and industrial products until 2003 when there was a total ban on the manufacture, use, reuse, import, transport, storage or sale of all forms of asbestos.

How do you recognise asbestos products?

Generally, you can’t tell whether a material contains asbestos by looking at it.

If the product is one that could contain asbestos, and was installed prior to 1990 (when asbestos had stopped being used in building materials) you should treat the suspect material as though it does contain asbestos.

If you need to verify whether the product is free of asbestos, this can only be done with the use of a microscope. If you need to confirm the presence of asbestos in a product you will need to contact a National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA) accredited laboratory (external site).

If I am exposed to asbestos products what are the risks to my health?

Asbestos can cause a number of diseases, including lung cancer, mesothelioma (a cancer of the lining of the lung or abdomen) and asbestosis (stiffening of the lungs).

The risk of developing an asbestos-related disease from exposure to asbestos products in and around the home is extremely small. The risk depends on the total number of fibres inhaled, the length of time of exposure and how often you are exposed. Most people who have developed asbestos-related diseases have had high exposures from working with asbestos and/or asbestos products but not all people who worked with asbestos have developed disease.

Some people have developed an asbestos-related disease after renovating a home containing asbestos. In most of these cases renovations were done when asbestos was a legal product and few precautions were taken. For information on the recommended precautions refer to the information below. Precautions should always be used when removing asbestos products or renovating a house containing asbestos.

All efforts should be made to keep any asbestos products in or around your home in good condition or remove them safely.

What if I am exposed to asbestos products?

Just because you have been exposed to asbestos does not mean you will get an asbestos-related disease. In fact it is very unlikely that a single exposure will result in disease.

There is no action you need to take if you have been exposed to asbestos, other than making sure that future exposure is minimised. There is quite a long period (20 to 50 years) between exposure and the development of disease, even for people who have had high exposures in the workplace. Currently there is no ‘test’ for asbestos exposure or the risk of developing an asbestos-related disease.

There is a National Asbestos Exposure Register (external site) for members of the community who have been exposed to asbestos. The register is for anyone who has had a significant exposure (for example, breathing in fine dust from cutting or sawing into a product you later found out contained asbestos).

What should I do about my existing asbestos cement fence?

If a fence is made of cement sheeting, was installed before 1990 then it is highly likely to contain asbestos and should be treated as such.

In most cases the condition is unlikely to be an immediate problem but these products need to be properly managed. Good management of your fence includes:

  • maintaining fence in good condition
  • removal of the fence if it has deteriorated or become damaged
  • keeping sheeting panels intact
  • using safety precautions when maintaining, repairing or removing sheets.

Asbestos cement fences are subject to regulatory requirements. If the fence is very badly damaged then removal is strongly recommended as you may be issued with a fine. However, it is best for neighbours to negotiate between themselves to reach a solution on any fence issue/s.

Many of the asbestos cement fences in Western Australia have deteriorated or been damaged after decades of use.

What should I do about my existing asbestos cement roof?

Inspect asbestos cement roofs regularly for signs of deterioration and damage.

You should consider complete removal and replacement of a roof rather than cleaning and maintenance, especially if it has started to deteriorate. This is because:

  • most asbestos cement roofs are over 40 years old and have reached the end of their useful life, particularly if they have not been regularly maintained.
  • you can not use a high pressure hose to clean roofs as this will break up the surface of the sheet and cause asbestos debris to be widely spread. The use of a high pressure hose is an offence and you may be fined or prosecuted.
  • asbestos cement roofs become brittle with age and can be unsafe to walk on or maintain.

Caution: it is strongly recommended that you seek the services of a licensed asbestos removal contractor (external site) for roof removal work for fall safety and proper clean up.

Existing asbestos cement roofs should be regularly maintained, using the following procedures:

  • Check gutters and downpipes are working and in good condition.
  • Clean gutters and drains as often as required to remove any build-up of material.
    • Soak the waste material with water.
    • Collect it in heavy duty plastic bags for disposal at a landfill accepting asbestos waste.
    • Prune all trees and branches 600 mm away from asbestos cement roofing.
    • Do not clean the roof unless absolutely necessary. If cleaning is necessary (e.g. to remove dead moss and algae):
      • a surface biocide can be applied
      • remove biocide using water and gentle brushing (with a soft bristled brush)
      • during this procedure, the material must be kept wet at all times
      • all material coming off the roof should be collected and disposed as asbestos waste.
What if I find illegally dumped asbestos?

It is illegal to dump asbestos anywhere but in a licensed landfill or waste site. If you are caught dumping asbestos you can be prosecuted.

If you find or witness the illegal dumping of asbestos you should contact your local government environment health services (external site).

How is asbestos regulated?

Asbestos is regulated by a number of agencies, including WorkSafe, Department of Environment Regulation and Department of Health. Read more about the agencies, their role in asbestos regulation and contact details.

The Department of Health regulates asbestos through the Health (Asbestos) Regulations 1992 (HAR). Important features of the HAR include:

  • prohibition (with exemptions) of the sale, supply or use of asbestos cement products
  • requiring reasonable measures be used for the storage, maintenance, repair, removal, and disposal of material containing asbestos (reasonable measures are defined)
  • prohibition (with exemptions) of moving a house built, wholly or partly, with asbestos cement products
  • duty to notify others of the presence of asbestos when being disposed of.

Under the regulations you can be directed by an authorised person (which includes local government environmental health officer) to maintain, repair, remove, move, or dispose of the material containing asbestos

Penalties apply for not complying with these regulations. As of January 2017 penalties of up to $10,000 (for individuals) can be imposed if a person is convicted of an offence against the regulations. Infringement notices and fines, which don’t require a conviction, can also be imposed.

More information

Remember

  • Asbestos was commonly used in building materials due to its durability, fire resistance and insulation properties.
  • When asbestos material is left undisturbed it is relatively harmless.
  • Manufacturing of all asbestos products ceased in 1987.
  • Safely removing asbestos can be a complicated process.

Acknowledgements

Environmental Health


This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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