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Safe asbestos removal

By Alex Brooks

Hearing the word asbestos frightens the living daylights out of renovators.

“People think if they stare at it, they’ll go blind,” says Asbestos Professionals principal Vince Bradvica. “The media and James Hardy have scared the living hell out of people.”

Asbestos dust can kill you if it becomes airborne - so the scare is understandable.

The legacy of Australia’s obsession with building products made with the deadly fibre is a festering wound that’s been left largely to home renovators and builders to remove.

There is no well-organised – or affordable – asbestos-removal system in place for homeowners. It’s simply a matter of ‘oops, there’s some asbestos: now what should we do?’.

Marrickville renovator Tristan Hanlon discovered asbestos the dirty way when she was digging her vegetable garden. “I found a whole lot of ugly grey-green tiles buried in the garden and put them in a skip,” she says.

“The first I knew of it being asbestos was when I had three calls from the skip company telling me they couldn’t remove it without charging me an extra $400. Call me stupid, but I had no idea that what I was handling was asbestos – I always thought it would look more like fibreglass or something soft and dusty.” Hanlon didn’t use a mask while handling the material as she had no idea what it was.

Master Builders Association’s Peter Becker – who trains builders how to correctly handle and dispose of asbestos – says people shouldn’t be paranoid about asbestos, but must find out whether it is in their home and keep it in good condition.

“Try as little as possible to disturb it. If you find some and there is any damage to sheeting, then paint it with PVA glue,” he says.

Becker says asbestos roofing from the 1950s and 1960s is perhaps the most hazardous building material, as it has been exposed to the elements potentially allowing asbestos fibres to waft into gutters and drainpipes .“If you go out in your street on a windy day, you could breathe asbestos in from old rooves and materials in your area,” he says.

The president of the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association Ross Mitchell says most householders are unlikely to encounter friable asbestos – the most dangerous airborne fibres – but are likely to have bonded asbestos somewhere in their home.

“Up until the early 1990s, it was used in all houses. Asbestos isn’t just fibro. Electrical switchboards often have zelemite, a black tar board which has asbestos in it. Vinyl floor tiles can have it. We found fibro sheeting stamped ‘no asbestos’ still contained asbestos fibres once we got it back to the lab – the sheets had been contaminated somehow,” he says.

Mitchell recommends removal and replacement of old asbestos roof sheeting. “There are sealing systems on the market which make an asbestos roof look like new, but they cost around a third the price of removal,” he says. “We think sealing systems simply defer the problem when really we need to get asbestos back into the ground as safely as possible.”

Bradvica – who holds a class 2 asbestos removal licence – says a licensed contractor may work with a hygienist or environmental scientist to monitor the clean-up and then obtain a clearance certificate from WorkCover.

Mitchell says it costs $8000 to $12000 to safely remove an entire fibro house. Removing smaller amounts of fibro is cheaper, but not always easy or efficient for asbestos removal contractors.

“The small jobs are hard to get around to – it’s easier to do one $1million job than ten $100,000 jobs if you’re in this business. I don’t enjoy charging a humble mum and dad $2000 to remove their asbestos, but someone’s got to do it.”

Decker worries that well-trained asbestos removal contractors are busy with large jobs and only smaller, less-skilled contractors will be available for householders to call upon for asbestos removal.

“There are plenty of cowboys out there. I had a lady ring me up because she employed someone to remove some fibro. A few days later she was gardening and found the fibro had just been shoved under her house,” he says.

“Authorities try to scamper from the issue by asking for more stringent measures but shouldn’t we be making it easier for people to get rid of asbestos, not harder?”

ASBESTOS IN THE HOME

  • Any home or apartment built before 1993 is likely to contain asbestos in some form or another. Asbestos was not only in fibro sheeting, but also in vinyl floor tiles and in zelemite.
  • Fibro sheeting containing asbestos was often used in kitchens, laundries and bathrooms, even in double brick houses. Sometimes old concrete pathways were formed using asbestos sheeting.
  • Any renovator doing rebuilding work could uncover asbestos in unlikely places. Older sheets of fibro are often smooth on one side, and dimpled on the non-fascia side.
  • Licensed asbestos removal contractors are the best trades to employ to remove asbestos, but will cost more than a general rubbish removal or demolisher as they have higher insurance and training costs.
  • The current regulations say more than 200 sq m of asbestos must be removed by a licensed contractor, but that will drop to 50 sq m of asbestos from July and to 10 sq m from January, 2008.
  • Small amounts of asbestos can be removed by renovators. Old fibro sheeting can be wrapped in black plastic and disposed of as a special waste at WSN transfer stations – you will need to ring in advance to obtain a quote. WorkCover have guidelines for the safe removal of asbestos.
  • Every local council has a different asbestos removal policy – and renovations requiring DA approval often have strict handling and removal regulations.
  • Only a visit by a qualified occupational hygienist (usually an environmental scientist) or licensed asbestos removal contractor can confirm whether asbestos is present in a house or apartment. “Ninety-nine per cent of the time you can tell by looking at the way the house is constructed and how old it is, but sometimes you need lab tests to confirm it,” Bradvica says.
  • Don’t drill or use circular saws on asbestos sheeting, especially during removal. Minimise all dust and disturbance by spraying water, and dispose of suits and gloves with the asbestos. Asbestos is typically dumped into special landfills that are sprayed with water to minimise dust at all times.

Head to www.smh.com.au/renovationnation to have your say on whether governments should step in to create a well-organised, affordable asbestos-removal system to ensure the next generation is not at risk from the asbestos in building materials?