When are householders likely to be exposed to asbestos?

A guide for householders and the general public

Page last updated: 06 March 2013

Householders may be exposed to asbestos fibres during accidental damage to asbestos materials in the home, or as a result of unsafe handling of asbestos material by tradespeople or by the householders themselves. Some typical scenarios are described below.

During normal wear and tear

In normal circumstances, the risk to householders from asbestos is very low. If the house contains bonded asbestos products that are in good condition, it is best to leave them alone but check them from time to time for any signs of damage or deterioration.

The natural ageing and weathering of asbestos cement roofs releases asbestos fibres over time. However, this is unlikely to pose a risk to health because the fibres are dispersed, diluted by the wind and washed away in rainwater runoff systems. Air testing near buildings with asbestos cement roofs has found very little increase in fibre levels.

During minor household maintenance or accidental disturbance

Accidental exposure may be a result of someone pushing their foot through a ceiling sheet, putting up a new towel rail, or even cleaning up garden debris.

If accidental exposure occurs, take prompt steps to manage it by reducing personal exposure and preventing further occurrences. For example, you could remove broken pieces, wipe down surfaces with a wet cloth, close doors and windows or even temporarily relocate while the work is being carried out.

Particular tasks, such as using power tools for cutting, drilling, grinding, sanding or sawing, can release significant numbers of fibres. The use of high-pressure water blasters for cleaning can also release fibres.

You should never use power tools or high-pressure, water jet cleaning equipment on asbestos products as they may cause damage that releases asbestos fibres. In some states, these activities are illegal.
Old vinyl and linoleum floor coverings and tiles might also contain asbestos backing in form that can easily become airborne when disturbed. See Key 'Dos and don'ts' for handling asbestos materials for further information on how to protect yourself and your family, including young children, and dispose of any broken pieces of asbestos cement materials or other products.
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If in doubt, engage a licensed asbestos removalist.

Asbestos-related risk

Very lowBackgroundConstantGeneral publicAll air has a low level of asbestos fibres
Low10s–100s x BackgroundOccasionalHouseholderIncident such as unsafe renovation or demolition next door
Medium100s–1000s x BackgroundOccasionalHome renovatorUnsafe removal of asbestos in home renovation
High100s–1000s x BackgroundFrequentBuilder/tradespersonFrequent exposure to high levels of asbestos by builders, etc if using unsafe practices
ExtremeMillions x BackgroundDailyAsbestos mine worker(Note: All asbestos mining in Australia stopped by 1983)

Risk of disease increases with increased exposure
(measured as number of fibres and frequency of exposure)

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If you suspect that a neighbour or other person is not observing safe work practices (such as by using power tools while cutting asbestos or by using a high-pressure spray), report the issue to your local government environmental health officer.

Note that when you engage a tradesperson, your home becomes their workplace. It is therefore important to alert any tradespeople who come to your house that it contains (or might contain) asbestos and to cooperate with all measures to ensure they are not exposed to asbestos fibres. If you are concerned about a tradesperson’s work practices you could contact your state or territory health and safety authority, who will advise on occupational health and safety issues for the tradesperson.

Case Study

Bob's corrugated fibro roof

Bob is concerned about his roof. He thinks it might be over 30 years old, judging by the age of the house. The roof itself looks old, it is dirty and is a mouldy dark colour from lichen. It is definitely not tiles or galvanised iron, but is made from a corrugated material which he suspects may contain asbestos.

He has noticed that a number of his neighbours in the street have recently had their roofs renovated. Bob has also noticed the increased number of storms and hail damage in the news reports for the area, and is worried about the fibro roof being damaged and then having to deal with the clean-up problems if it does contain asbestos.

He realises it might cost him money but he decides to get advice. He contacts his local occupational health and safety authority and also takes a small sample of the roofing material to a testing laboratory to be analysed (after asking for advice on how to take a sample safely. The roofing material is subsequently confirmed as being an asbestos-containing roofing material known as ‘Super 6’, and is in poor condition.

Bob then acts on the advice he has received and approaches a number of licensed asbestos removalists to get quotes for the removal and replacement of the roof, as resealing and painting is not a safe option. He decides to put money aside to get the roof replaced as soon as he can afford it.

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Case Study

Joan’s eaves

Recently, Joan had a new porch built on her house. The builder correctly advised her that the eaves of the old porch might be made of an asbestos cement product (fibro). They had a piece tested and the results showed that it did contain asbestos. Joan’s builder arranged for a licensed asbestos removalist to come and remove the asbestos products before the rest of the old porch was demolished and the new porch built.

Joan is now worried that the rest of the eaves of her house might also be fibro, so she contacts the asbestos removalist about having them removed and replaced. The asbestos removalist comes back to the house and inspects the eaves for Joan. He shows her that they are all in very good condition and pose a very low risk so Joan does not need to have them replaced. However, he tells her to contact him if she notices that they are cracking or deteriorating, or if she is having any other renovation work done that disturbs the eaves.

By following these simple steps, Joan has minimised the risk to herself and her neighbours.

During renovations and demolition work

During renovations or demolition of affected houses, asbestos fibres may be released into the air. While the overall health risk in these circumstances may be very low, extra precautions should be taken to reduce the chance of asbestos fibres becoming airborne and subsequently being inhaled.

The workers’ exposure can be reduced by wearing personal protective equipment such as masks and appropriate clothing. Other precautions include dampening down surfaces, not using power tools or high-pressure cleaning equipment, and vacating the home during the renovation (see Key 'Dos and don'ts' for handling asbestos materials for further details). In some cases, the level of protective equipment used by tradespeople will be higher than that recommended for householders. This is because tradespeople, particularly asbestos removalists, often come into contact with large quantities of asbestos material during the normal course of their work. They therefore have a higher risk of developing an asbestos-related disease and so need to use more protective equipment than householders.

The removal of asbestos during major renovations or demolitions of buildings and structures needs to be supervised by qualified and licensed asbestos removalists in order to prevent the release of asbestos fibres into the surrounding neighbourhood.

If you are concerned about demolition work being carried out close to your home, remain indoors and contact your local government environmental health officer and/or your state or territory health and safety authority.
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Case Study

Dennis and Maureen's back garden

Dennis and Maureen have just moved into a run-down old house in the inner city. While landscaping the back garden, they find a pile of old building materials behind the shed, half buried under thick weeds. Dennis thinks some of the pieces are broken fibro but is not sure.

Most of the pieces are quite big and don’t look at all flaky, but when Dennis and Maureen look around the area they find several smaller fragments. Dennis is worried that they might get crushed in the lawnmower. Maureen starts to gather up the pieces and put them in the skip they have ordered for other garden rubbish but Dennis thinks this might not be a good idea.

Dennis looks up asbestos on his state government websitea and finds information about how to dispose of broken asbestos sheeting from gardens. They are still not sure if the materials actually contain asbestos but decide to assume that they do because getting them tested takes a few days and they want to get on with the garden. They decide to follow the instructions in the fact sheet to dispose of the material they found in their garden. Wearing gloves and masks they collect up all the pieces, including from the underlying soil, wrap them carefully in several layers of thick plastic and tape up the parcel. They label the parcel ‘ASBESTOS’ and take it to the designated disposal site listed on the website.

By following these simple steps, Dennis and Maureen have minimised the risk to themselves and their neighbours.

a See Further information and advice on asbestos for telephone and website details of where to get advice about asbestos.

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Other disturbances

Carpet underlay

Some carpet underlay manufactured and installed before the early 1970s used material produced from hessian bags that had previously been used to transport raw asbestos. The Western Australian Department of Health has tested samples from over 20 homes and only found asbestos fibres in underlay from one home. This underlay had been installed in the early 1950s. If you suspect that your carpet underlay might contain asbestos, you can arrange to have a sample tested (see How do I know if a material in my house contains asbestos for how to contact an asbestos-testing laboratory).

Underlay containing asbestos will not pose a significant risk while it remains underneath the carpet. If the carpet is badly worn or damaged, consider replacing both the carpet and the underlay. Replacement of the carpet at any time would also provide an ideal opportunity for safe disposal and replacement of the underlay. When an old carpet is taken up, standard precautions should be taken (see Key 'Dos and don'ts' for handling asbestos materials). These precautions will provide adequate protection against dust and other allergens, as well as asbestos in the unlikely event it is present. The Western Australian and Queensland health departments have information about carpet underlay on their asbestos information webpages (See Further information and advice on asbestos).

Fire damage

During a building fire or bushfire, the amount of asbestos fibres released into the air is relatively low. Air monitoring during and after fires has confirmed this. However, pieces ofasbestos material and some fibres may remain in the ash and may present a risk if they are disturbed while cleaning up after a fire. For this reason, when cleaning up after a fire, you should wet down the debris to avoid dust and wear personal protective equipment (see Key 'Dos and don'ts' for handling asbestos materials). If asbestos-containing materials have been burnt on your property, the best option is to engage a licensed asbestos removalist to do the clean-up work.

Hail and storm damage

Hailstorms pose a risk to roofing, particularly old asbestos roofs. If your asbestos roofing is punctured or cracked, it is best have your house re-roofed. Be very careful when checking your roof, particularly if it contains asbestos or other brittle material, because there is a high risk of falling off or through the roof. Do not attempt to repair broken asbestos cement roofs. As soon as possible after a storm, or if you suspect damage, have the roof properly assessed by a licensed professional.

Re-roofing should also be done by a licensed professional and you and your family may need to move out of the house while the work is being done.
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Case Study

Julie and Jeff's house

Julie and Jeff’s house was one of a large number destroyed by a recent bushfire. They had safely evacuated before the fire, but were keen to return to their house to search for valuables and start cleaning up.

Asbestos sheeting was known to have exploded due to the intense heat of the fires and, in the aftermath, there was considerable concern about the potential for exposure to asbestos fibres in all fire-affected areas. Subsequent testing detected small numbers of asbestos fibres in the burnt remains of several buildings, but no asbestos fibres in public places.

Julie had also heard concern expressed by the health department that entering fire-affected properties and disturbing debris might be dangerous for a number of reasons. Potential hazards included exposure to airborne debris from lead-based paints and burnt treated timbers, live wires, damaged gas tanks, damaged septic tanks and chemicals in damaged containers, as well as significant amounts of dust and ash.

The department advised people not to search their properties without taking adequate precautions, and provided kits for residents to use when searching through debris on their properties. The kits included masks, gloves and coveralls that were appropriate for asbestos exposure, as well as information on possible hazards and instructions for the use of personal protective equipment.

The government also organised and paid for property clean-up, and people affected by fires were advised to use this service rather than trying to clean up their properties themselves.

By using the residents’ kit and organising the government-funded clean-up service for their property, Julie and Jeff minimised the risk to themselves and their family.

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