Healthy living

Asbestos – carpet underlay

Until the early 1970s, significant quantities of hessian bags were recycled. These bags were previously used to transport:

  • asbestos
  • wool
  • superphosphate
  • produce.

The bags were recycled with other material, such as jute and goat hair, to manufacture carpet felt underlay.

Some bags were possibly imported from other countries.

It is understood the bag recycling process involved:

  • mechanical shredding
  • vibration
  • cleaning.

It is likely that most asbestos fibres would have been removed during this process.

The people most at risk from the asbestos fibres in hessian bags are those who worked in the recycling environment.

Is there a potential health risk from carpet underlay?

The Asbestos Diseases Society interviewed people who had contracted an asbestos related disease and:

  • were former employees of the hessian bag recycling industry

or

  • had transported asbestos in these bags, from Wittenoom to Perth.

The Environmental Health Directorate (EHD) of the Department of Health gathered several samples of carpet underlay to see if there was also a risk to the public. They tested these samples to try and obtain evidence of asbestos fibres in carpet underlay in homes.

The intention was to obtain samples that had been installed before 1970, with the original underlay.

Although only a relatively small number of samples were obtained, they were all found to be free of asbestos.

Several samples collected independently by the Asbestos Diseases Society were also found to be free of any asbestos.

Based on the results, it was determined the risk of asbestos being in carpet underlay was low. However, precautions should still be taken when removing old carpet in the unlikely event asbestos fibres are present.

Results of recent investigations

Subsequent to the initial sample, further samples of underlay collected from 12 Perth homes were analysed.

Of these samples, 11 did not contain asbestos. However, small quantities of asbestos fibres were detected in the carpet underlay, which was original from the 1950s home.

The underlay, carpet and dust from the house with the affected underlay revealed that the asbestos fibres were confined to the underlay. It is considered unlikely that fibres would have been released into the air where they would pose a health risk.

The EHD still tests samples of old carpet underlay from the public, so they can provide more informed advice on potential risks from carpet underlay.

If your carpet was installed prior to the early 1970s and you are considering replacing your carpet, please contact the EHD on 9388 4999.

They will assess whether your carpet underlay is of the type and age that may have included asbestos-contaminated hessian material.

Is there a need to be concerned?

Current findings, based on the samples collected from a total of 23 homes, indicate it is unlikely for asbestos fibres to be found in carpet underlay.

It is also very unlikely, while the carpet and underlay remain intact, that asbestos fibres would be released and become airborne.

However, precautions should always be taken when disturbing or removing old carpet and underlay – considerable dust and particulates are released during the process.

Following these precautions should also provide a safeguard in the unlikely event there are asbestos fibres present.

Precautions to take when removing old carpet

Householders should take standard precautions when removing old carpet and underlay. The standard safety precautions are to wear:

  • Class P1 or P2 facemask
  • disposable overalls.

Care should be taken to minimise the release of dust by carefully rolling up carpet and underlay. Where possible, lightly wet the material prior to and during the removal process.

Following these procedures should provide protection against inhaling dust and other allergens as well as any asbestos fibres that may be present.

Alternatively, residents should engage a professional carpet layer to remove and replace their carpet.

Can I continue to vacuum my carpet?

Tests were conducted on the house where the asbestos fibres were found in the carpet underlay.

Through testing carpets in the undisturbed rooms of this house, there was no evidence to suggest that vacuuming leads to asbestos fibres:

  • spreading from underneath the carpet
  • becoming airborne.

What am I required to do in the event of a positive sample result?

If your home tests positive for asbestos in the carpet underlay, you will be contacted by the EHD to discuss what further actions or measures may need to be taken.

If you wish to remove the carpet and underlay, it is important to:

  • follow the precautions
  • ensure that once removed, the carpet and underlay is wrapped and sealed in plastic sheeting
  • label the bundles with the words – CAUTION asbestos
  • take the wrapped bundles to a waste facility that accepts asbestos.

For advice on location of waste facilities, residents can contact their local government (external site).

The preferred option is for the resident to engage a licensed asbestos removalist to carry out the work. Asbestos removalists can be found searching the yellow pages (external site).

Should I be concerned if I have old hessian bags in my possession?

Hessian bags were often labelled or marked with the material they were carrying.

If you have bags that were used for asbestos, they should be treated as any other asbestos-contaminated material, and handled in the same way as carpet underlay containing asbestos.

It is possible that asbestos was also transported in unlabelled hessian bags, so these should also be treated as potentially contaminated, unless the source and prior use of the bags is known.

More information

  • Call the Environmental Health Hazards Unit on 9388 4999.

Remember

  • The people most at risk from the asbestos fibres in hessian bags are those who worked in the recycling environment.
  • It is unlikely for asbestos fibres to be found in carpet underlay.
  • Precautions should always be taken when disturbing or removing old carpet and underlay.

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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