Asbestos & Australia have a deep-rooted connection because in the early 1900s the site in Wittenoom, Western Australia was the first place to discover the once very popular building material. Unfortunately, Wittenoom is a deserted town today as it has suffered immensely from asbestos exposure and has transformed into a ghost town. In the 1950s, the streets of Wittenoom were paved with asbestos, as was the popularity of the material but little did people know about the health hazards that accompanied it. Gradually, the world came to know that asbestos was lethal for human health because it is a carcinogen and today, it is a banned substance in many parts of the world. Exposure to asbestos can be deadly because the fibres and the dust can accumulate in the human body and cause cancer.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous silicate material that essentially comprises two main groups – white asbestos or serpentine fibres which are short and curly and the blues asbestos or amphibole fibres that are straight and long. Although both types of asbestos are bad, blue asbestos is more lethal because it is almost impossible to clear it from the respiratory tract due to its shape.  Between the periods of the 1950s to 1980s when people were not fully aware of the dangers of asbestos for human health it was the material of choice for use in insulation and other construction work.  Resistance to fire and affordability were the top reasons for the popularity of asbestos in addition to its softness and tensile strength that made it an excellent building material.

Today, seldom will you find the use of asbestos in buildings and other construction sites because of the awareness and government restrictions in using the material. However, this does not ensure that homes are free from asbestos as you will still find it in older homes. If you happen to live in some building more than 20-25 years old,  you can be sure that the insulation and cladding of ducts and pipeline have asbestos inside. Since, asbestos still exists, albeit, in much smaller quantities in domestic areas and commercial spaces, awareness about handling it properly especially during asbestos removal will help to reduce the health risks associated with it.

Health risks from asbestos

Although asbestos is bad for health, there is nothing to worry about if you have asbestos at home. Sound a bit confusing? Of course, because the statement is incomplete as it comes with a rider. Asbestos does not cause any harm unless the fibres pass into the body through the respiratory system. If you can avoid breathing in asbestos fibre, there is no risk at all. There is no health risk from undisturbed asbestos cement material as long as the fibres remain strongly bonded and embedded under the surface.

However, if the material is crumbling or damaged and has become friable or subjected to cutting, drilling, sanding then fibres spread into the air and pose health risks. Asbestos rope gaskets in heaters and wood stoves and spray-on insulation produce airborne fibres in normal conditions and more so when ageing. You have to be careful in handling crumbling asbestos materials to avoid the release of asbestos fibres in the environment.

Safe handling of asbestos material

  • You have to ensure that the work area is well-ventilated and if working outdoors, there should not be any breeze. If you are working indoor, isolate the area from the rest of the building by closing and sealing internal doors. However, keep external doors and windows open for maximum ventilation.
  • Never work on a dry surface but keep it moist by wetting it thoroughly before starting work. Use polyvinyl acetate solution in water (1:10) and keep occasionally spraying while working to retain the wetness as long as you work.
  • Preferably use hand tools that do not use power because it generates a smaller amount of waste chips and dust as compared to power-driven machines.
  • Avoid dropping asbestos sheet or treating it in some way that can cause breakage and release fibres. Remove nails first to ensure sheeting with asbestos with minimal breakage.
  • Minimise cutting as much as possible and cover the floor with a heavy-duty plastic sheet to collect debris dust and offcuts.
  • Thoroughly clean your hands and fingernails after working even if you have used gloves and do not forget to wash and shower your hair as soon as you finish work. It would ensure removal of asbestos dust sticking to your body.
  • As soon as you finish the job, thoroughly clean the workplace, tools and equipment without any delay.

Use personal protective equipment

When working with asbestos, wearing personal protective gear is mandatory. While professional asbestos handling contractors would religiously follow the norm, you too must adhere to it strictly even if you are managing a tiny piece of asbestos-related work.

Wear disposable clothing like coveralls that can cover all clothing and footwear from asbestos exposure. Along with it, use a disposable hat or attached hood and wear disposable hand gloves. The gloves should adequately cover the hands, and the coveralls should not have Velcro fastenings or external pockets. Use smooth non-slip no lace / no fastener footwear.

Use a respirator

Covering your nose and mouth with an appropriate respirator is extremely important to prevent the asbestos fibres entering your body through the respiratory system. The respirator should be capable of preventing asbestos dust and fibre from passing through, and an ordinary respirator is not suitable for the purpose.  A filter respirator preferably half face fitted with a filter cartridge (class P1 or class P2) is good, or you can use a disposable class P1 or class P2 respirator suitable for asbestos that complies with Australian/ New Zealand standard 1716. A close fit respirator on a clean-shaven face works best. Do not remove the respirator till the work and cleaning are complete.

Entrusting a professional contractor licensed for asbestos work will ensure complete compliance with the regulatory and safety guidelines.