With its fine beaches, easy-going lifestyle, lovely weather and abundant green spaces, Perth is celebrated as one of the world’s most liveable cities. However, it also has another, darker moniker – the Asbestos Capital of the World. If you live in the fair city of Perth, it’s vital that you appreciate the scale of the problem and if affected, arrange for professional asbestos removal.
Perth gained this unenviable reputation even after it phased out the use of asbestos in building products back in the 1980s. Moreover, the sad fact is that it’s not just the city of Perth but whole stretches of Western Australia (WA) that are at risk, though much has been done in the field of asbestos removal in Perth.
Here’s a look at how the resplendent city of Perth and its environs was given this unflattering moniker, and what WA residents can do to stay safe. To begin, let’s look at the history of the use of asbestos in the region.
How did Perth become the Asbestos Capital?
We’ll start off with some background on asbestos.
Asbestos is a natural fibrous material that’s mined from metamorphic rocks. It’s found all over the world with Canada being a major producer. Its history in Australia dates back to the 1880s when mining began in Jones Creek, New South Wales.
Major mining began in Wittenoom, some 880 miles north of Perth, in the 1930s when this rural area was torn up in the search for crocidolite, also known as blue asbestos.
Other convenient sources for Perth builders include the Hamersley Range in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Clearly, there’s never been a shortage of asbestos in Western Australia. So why did its use become so widespread?
Asbestos was a boon for the construction industry owing to its unique qualities. It’s highly durable, can withstand fire and water, and offers desirable insulating attributes for both sound and heat. So, it’s no surprise that Australia, with its booming house building, adopted asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) to such a degree. In fact, from the post-war building boom to the banning of asbestos in the 1980s, the country had the highest per capita asbestos use in the whole world.
While the use of ACMs in construction has been banned since the 1980s, almost every home put up in WA since the Second World War contained the deadly mineral fibre in one form or another. It appeared mainly in the form of ‘fibro’ or fibrous asbestos cement, which was sheeting used in walls and ceilings for its fire-retardant and insulating properties.
Considering how extensively asbestos was used in construction in the past, any older home is almost certain to have some asbestos issues that may need to be handled before renovation. However, only professional asbestos assessment can fully determine the presence and scope of any contamination.
The History of Asbestos Use in Perth, WA
As mentioned above, asbestos was a key material in the construction of most homes built between the war and the eventual ban in the 1980s.
It was so popular that asbestos mining was a major industry in the Perth area with crocidolite and chrysolite mined in Western Australia until the end of 1984. On top of that, the country heavily imported asbestos, with over 1.5 million tonnes of the substance flowing into Australia during the early 1980s.
Other than its use to insulate walls, asbestos sheeting was used in roofs. Unlike the sheets tucked away between wall panels, roof sheets are at the mercy of the elements and may release fibres or dust up into the atmosphere or down into the roof cavities of the house. This can also happen if high-pressure cleaning is used on the roofs.
No Perth Suburb is Safe
A simple statistic will illustrate the lethal legacy of asbestos in the Perth area. While around half of the homes built in NSW between 1945 and 1984 contained ACMs, in WA the figure was closer to 100%. In particular, the material called ‘fibro’ (fibrous asbestos cement sheeting) was used in just about every WA home until asbestos was finally banned in the 1980s.
Perth consists of around 355 suburbs of varying ages. Older suburbs are naturally more at risk as the homes there were built in the heyday of asbestos. However, newer residences might also be contaminated by using second-hand materials that were available before asbestos was banned entirely.
The fact is that virtually all homes built before the mid-1980s are highly likely to contain asbestos in the walls, roof or other locations, while homes built before 1990 are possibly at risk. Homes put up after this year are less likely to contain asbestos. However, a total ban on asbestos use didn’t come into effect until
December 2003, so any home built using older materials might be contaminated.
In other words, no matter where you live in the Perth district, you should be aware of possible problems arising from the use of asbestos in the distant past.
What’s Being Done to Clean Up Asbestos in Perth?
One major problem is a lack of knowledge of the problem.
While most people are generally aware of the presence of asbestos in homes and the health dangers it represents, few are clear on the specifics on where the asbestos is lurking and how to go about dealing with it.
The government did carry out a hazardous material assessment of public homes to determine the presence of asbestos-containing materials. The survey found that the most common contaminant was asbestos cement which can contain up to 15% asbestos.
While the authorities did work to remove the contamination from public housing, and got involved with commercial environmental remediation to ensure mines, factories and other such industrial hazards were cleaned up, private homes remain at risk.
Essentially, it’s up to each resident to take responsibility for the safety of their property and arrange proper asbestos removal.
It’s important to realise that asbestos comes in two forms – friable and non-friable. Friable essentially means the substance is in a powdery form which can easily crumble and be released into the air. Fortunately, this is the less common form and usually comes in materials such as water pipe insulation and the backing for vinyl flooring.
Non-friable asbestos is found in the ubiquitous cement sheets. The problem is that while these are reasonably safe if left alone, they can release dangerous fibres once disturbed. Events that can cause this to happen include carrying out renovation work, floods or subsidence. Moreover, the older the sheets get, the more fragile they are and thus riskier to handle.
While much is being done to help rid the state of these hazardous materials, the increasing cost of disposal at WA landfills had made asbestos removal more expensive for Perth businesses.
What to Look Out for in Your Home
If your Perth residence dates back more than a few decades, there’s good chance it’s home to asbestos in some form or another. However, it’s impossible to tell if this is the case by the naked eye since the fibres are tiny and lack odour. To determine if your home is affected, lab testing is the only reliable way to find out the facts.
If you find asbestos cement sheets, you can try looking for warning labels on them. However, these weren’t introduced until 1979. While the material is generally safe to handle in a solid form since no air particles are released, we advise against you doing this task on your own. Trying to identify asbestos on your own is a hazardous undertaking as it’s generally accepted that no safe level of exposure exists.
For this reason, if you’re planning on any renovation work, even if it’s something basic such as installing a security system, it’s a smart move to have a professional firm carry out an asbestos assessment to determine if you’re at risk. You should also be wary about using high-pressure or steam cleaners on your roof as this can damage any asbestos-containing tiles and release fibres into the environment.
If you suspect your home contains asbestos, put your mind at rest by having a registered professional asbestos consultant carry out tests. This is especially important if you’re considering carrying out any renovations or home additions that may disturb any existing asbestos structures. Bear in mind that when it comes to asbestos, medical evidence maintains that there’s no such thing as a safe exposure level and diseases such as asbestosis (fibrotic lung disease) can be symptomless for up to 10 years.
Site Environmental & Remediation Services Pty Ltd (SERS) has been offering professional asbestos removal services to Perth homes and businesses since 2008 and has the experience, expertise and tools to handle any asbestos removal job throughout Western Australia. Don’t go handling asbestos or other materials on your own. Get in touch today to learn how we can help make your home safer and help Perth say goodbye to its status as the asbestos capital of the world.