Home Renovations and Asbestos

Renovating your home can be an exciting proposition. But if the home was built in the 1980s or before, there’s a good chance that it contains asbestos. In this case, the renovation could actually release that asbestos into the air, contaminating the area and exposing workers and those who live there to serious risk.

The SERS team are experts at asbestos testing, monitoring and management. At this stage, we have overseen the abatement of more than 1 million square metres of asbestos. We have extensive knowledge of how asbestos was used in the past – as well as in how to safely isolate and eliminate it. With that in mind, we’re going to offer our readers some tips regarding how to protect yourself and others when planning the renovation of an older home in Australia.

Why Was Asbestos Used So Extensively in Australian Homebuilding?

Asbestos is a compound with unique chemical properties that made it useful for certain types of construction materials. It has a high tensile strength and is resistant to high temperatures. For that reason, there many home-building applications for asbestos.

Today, we understand just how dangerous this material is. When asbestos becomes airborne, it becomes highly toxic. People who are exposed to it are at an elevated risk of developing cancer of the lungs and chest lining. However, it can take decades for these cancers to form. As a result, it took a long time for the medical community to connect the dots and realise that asbestos was the culprit.

As a result, asbestos was used extensively in Australian homebuilding during the 20th century before researchers and doctors caught on to how dangerous it was. In the 1990s, its use was curtailed significantly, before being outlawed in 2003. Even so, many houses built between 1920 and 1985 contain this dangerous carcinogen. By some estimates, as many as one out of three houses built during this time include asbestos-containing building materials.

New houses are generally safe, though there have been cases of imported building materials containing asbestos. The most notable instance like this occurred recently and was traced back to Chinese imports. However, these are the exception rather than the norm, and the greatest risk of asbestos contamination comes from older buildings.

Here’s Why Renovating Older Buildings Is So Dangerous

While asbestos is highly dangerous when it becomes airborne, it poses relatively little risk when left alone. Houses that were built with materials containing asbestos may pose little risk to occupants so long as those materials remain intact and undisturbed. But when they are cracked, drilled into or otherwise cut, the asbestos fibres they contain become airborne.

Needless to say, renovating an older home in Australia is bound to see asbestos-containing materials cracked, cut and broken. This is where the risk is elevated. Anyone who breathes in the particles that are released is at risk of developing asbestos-related diseases.

On the whole, the risk of developing cancer from asbestos is relatively low – but it does exist. The more asbestos particles you inhale, the greater your risk. This makes it all the more important to do everything you can to mitigate your risk of exposure.

These Home-building Products Are Likely to Contain Asbestos

As mentioned, older houses are much more likely to be built from asbestos-containing materials. Houses built during and before the 1980s have a much higher chance of containing these materials than those built in the 1990s or after. Houses built after 2003 should not contain any asbestos at all – but it never hurts to check.

For older homes, you’re most likely to find asbestos in the following places:

  • Asbestos cement was often used as a waterproof material to line the floors of bathrooms, kitchens and laundry rooms. It was manufactured in many colours and styles, with a range of decorative patterns available.
  • ‘Fibro’ cement sheeting contains asbestos fibres. This material was used for cladding the outer walls of houses. It was also used in roofing materials – particularly to line soffits and eaves. Fibro was particularly common in garages and detached sheds. It comes in many forms: corrugated sheets, patterned sheets and weatherboards, to name a few.
  • Ropes and blankets woven from asbestos fibres were used to insulate many items in older homes, including hot-water pipes, boilers and water heaters.
  • Asbestos fibres make excellent insulation. For that reason, they were used extensively to fill roof spaces. This is one of the most dangerous types of asbestos, as it is likely to become airborne even if undisturbed.
  • Cement gutters, chimney flumes and pipes were often manufactured from asbestos because of their positive thermal properties.

We should point out that identifying hazardous materials that contain asbestos is easier said than done. A visual inspection is often not enough – especially for the inexperienced. At the same time, a more hands-on inspection is much more dangerous and could expose a person to those fibres. This makes it important to charter the services of an expert.

How to Deal with Asbestos in a Home You’d Like to Renovate

If you’re considering renovating an older house, it’s important to have it inspected by a licensed professional like SERS.

If you suspect that certain materials do contain asbestos, and they have already been disturbed or broken, then it’s important to clear the house of occupants until the potential hazard can be assessed and dealt with. Do not make any attempt to clean up potentially contaminated debris by yourself.

Across most of Australia, there are laws in place governing how asbestos is to be handled, contained and disposed of. This is necessary to protect the public health. Trying to deal with these materials on your own could actually be against the law.

Fortunately, SERS is here to help. We can monitor your house for airborne asbestos, which allows us to verify whether the site has already been contaminated. And in the event that the air is clean, we can still conduct a thorough site survey to identify materials that are likely to contain asbestos. Contact us today to find out more about how we can help you contain an asbestos-related threat before you renovate.