If your home was built before 1990, there's a chance that it contains asbestos, a mineral fibre once used for purposes such as insulation. For much of the 20th century, asbestos was a common component of building materials, and Australia was one of the world's largest producers and consumers. According to the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, around a third of all Australian homes contain this material.
Health risks of asbestos
If inhaled, asbestos fibres can cause a wide range of conditions. The fibres can scar the lungs, leading to a condition called asbestosis which causes permanent lung damage. Other risks include pleural disease, another form of lung damage, as well as lung cancer and mesothelioma. The Mesothelioma Centre reports that Australia has the second-highest death rate from this condition in the world.
Avoiding asbestos exposure
Most asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) include asbestos fibres mixed into another material. For instance, a concrete wall might contain asbestos fibres as part of its mixture. This type of ACM -- called a non-friable material -- is harmless unless it is damaged in some way. For example, drilling into or demolishing a concrete wall might accidentally release asbestos fibres into the air, creating a health risk. Renovations can inadvertently release asbestos, as can accidents and natural events such as brush fires. Even very minor changes like sanding or pressure washing can potentially release asbestos fibres.
Identifying asbestos-containing materials
If you're worried that your home might contain ACMs, you should have an asbestos survey carried out by a licensed removalist or asbestos assessor. ACMs can be difficult to recognise without the proper training, so if you're unsure about the safety of a building material, it's best to check.
Disposing of asbestos
If improperly disposed of, ACMs can pose a serious risk to health and the environment. Regulations relating to asbestos removal vary from state to state, but in many areas you're allowed to remove small amounts of non-friable asbestos providing you follow the proper safety precautions. Only certain landfill sites are permitted to receive waste that contains asbestos, which must be properly sealed and transported. Larger amounts require asbestos removal by a qualified removalist.
For instance, in New South Wales any amount of asbestos above 10 square metres requires a licensed removalist. Similarly, friable asbestos materials can only be removed by a licensed professional. Proper removal and disposal protects you not only from the risks of asbestos inhalation but from the possible legal consequences of improper handling.