Asbestos in residential homes in the Canberra and Queanbeyan Region when renovating.

By Chris Williams, WetWorks Bathrooms. June 2013

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Are you considering renovating? Been watching DIY shows on TV and have the urge to get in and have a go? Something these TV shows don't inform you about is the risks from Asbestos. Make no mistake, Asbestos can kill you! I won't go into the effects of asbestos on your body here. I think we all know that it is not nice stuff so I will just concentrate on making you aware of how to identify it in your home and how to go about dealing with it in a safe way. If you take some simple precautions the risks to you and your families health will be low. I have almost 30 years’ experience in the building and renovation industry and the last 13 years renovating bathrooms and laundries. A lot of my work involves dealing with asbestos and I have done a lot of research into the problems associated with it and find the awareness in the public is very low. I hope this at least makes you stop and think before you rip into that reno.

Asbestos is the greatest health and safety concern to contractors and home owners alike when it comes time to renovate homes built between 1940 and 1987*.
It is my opinion, being informed is the first and greatest protection you can have regarding this misunderstood danger. Firstly we need to understand the most common building products that contain Asbestos that you may disturb when doing renovations to homes if they were built in the above mentioned era.

Note: Asbestos is not limited to only the areas/products listed below. Many building products contained asbestos. I have listed the most common ones you will find when doing renovations in order to keep this short and informative covering all aspects without having to research for hours.

The most common asbestos found in homes is the "Bonded" type that is more than likely in the wall sheets, under floor-tile sheeting and eave linings. Basically, any "Fibro" used in your house can contain asbestos. This type of Asbestos is stable and poses little risk until it is disturbed. Once it is disturbed, (cut with a grinder or broken and crushed) the asbestos fibres can break away from the cements and adhesive that have them bonded into the sheeting. Once they have broken away they can float around in the air risking being inhaled or ingested causing problems. 
If you are renovating a fibro shed, fibro corrugated roofing, bathroom, laundry, replacing floor tiles laid before 1987 over timber floor, working on eaves or any other Fibrous cement sheeting, you will need to consult with a professional to remove the sheeting and dispose of it properly.

Water Pipe Lagging
Another common type of asbestos that could be found in homes is hot water pipe lagging. The most common in domestic construction is around pipes located in brick walls under the render. It is in the form of a pulp similar to papier mache that has been installed around the pipes and then rendered over. This form of asbestos can be quite dangerous because it is considered "friable" and once disturbed, can easily break up and become airborne, risking it being inhaled or ingested.
If you are demolishing brick walls or removing render in wet areas you will need to address this problem by consulting a professional and have it removed and disposed of properly.

Insulation Fluff

(EDIT 2016: Some of this section is redundant now. The local ACT Government has since bought all "Mr Fluffy" homes in ACT, demolished them and re-sold the land. The problem is also being addressed in NSW by NSW Fair Trading - Loose-fill asbestos insulation )

Another type of Asbestos that is unique to homes in Canberra, Queanbeyan and the local district, is an Asbestos fluff that was used as a form of "Blow in" or "Loose-fill" insulation know as "amosite asbestos"in roof cavities. This highly dangerous type of asbestos is unique only to Canberra and Queanbeyan homes but has been found as far away as Batesmans Bay. This type of  asbestos was the sole work of one company in the 60ies and 70ies called "Mr Fluffy".
Long term Canberra residents may remember in the late 80ies and early 90ies, homes that were covered with a huge plastic tent. This was the ACT government of the days initiative to rid Canberra of this problem. Unfortunately, Queanbeyan and surrounding NSW areas were not covered by this initiative. It is estimated that there are currently 60 homes in the region that still contain "Mr Fluffy" insulation. Since the 1988 - 1993 clean up at least 4 homes have been found in ACT that missed the original survey, 3 which have since been cleaned by the ACT government and the fourth expected to be cleaned this year. (2013)
Much more still needs to be said and done with this problem. Not only with the unresolved NSW issues but awareness about the risks that are still present with the ACT homes that were "Cleaned" back in the day. 
If you are a contractor working in the surrounding NSW area you would be advised to ask questions to the home owner before starting any work. If you are the owner of a home in this area and have loose-fill insulation and you don’t have an Asbestos clearance report  for your home, you would be advised to never disturb the roof space and contact an Asbestos consultant for an inspection.
The NSW Government is aware of this problem and states they do not have the funding to rectify it.

If you are a contractor working in or an owner of one of these "cleaned" ACT homes you must take extreme caution when doing any kind of renovation. The fluff was only ever removed from accessible areas of the home ie. The roof cavity, under floor and to some extent the external wall cavities. The fluff still made its way through cable holes into walls. Down the external cavity and onto noggins etc. These areas will contain fluff and even so much as removing a light switch or power point could put you at risk.

Dealing with residual asbestos after it has been removed.

DO NOT attempt to work with, handle, remove or dispose of asbestos yourself; it is illegal. Once you have identified any possible asbestos you need to employ a licenced Asbestos remover to remove and dispose of it.

Something that I never see or hear talked about is the unavoidable fact that once you have had the known Asbestos removed and the area cleaned by licenced professionals, you can still be at risk by dislodging fibres hiding in places that were inaccessible to the asbestos removers. 

One very common place is under and behind bath tubs after the wall sheets have been removed. Get the asbestos remover to remove the tub once the wall sheets are removed and clean behind it as part of his work. They don't normally do this but I always insist that they do. Also, fibres can be between joints in timber. Between window reveals and studs and doors etc. If you are going to demolish windows, doors and wall framing further to asbestos wall sheet removal, you will come across asbestos chunks and fibres that were impossible to get to previously.

Rubbish including asbestos fibers that were not accessable behind a stud
Rubbish including asbestos fibers that were not accessable behind a stud at the time of asbestos removal.

We had asbestos removers come and remove the wall and under floor-tile sheeting for this bathroom renovation in Lyons, then we discovered this suprise after we pulled the timber floor boards up.
We had asbestos removers come and remove the wall and under floor-tile sheeting for this bathroom renovation in Lyons, then we discovered this suprise after we pulled the timber floor boards up. It is asbestos/cement sheeting that was dumped between the small gap between floor joists after a wall was removed between a toilet and bathroom on a previous renovation sometime in the 80ies. The asbestos removers needed to come back.

Even though you are not removing asbestos as such, you should still take a common scence approach and apply some personal precautions.

This is a list of some common sense approaches after the asbestos removers are done.

Asbestos left behind from a previous renovation
This is a product called "Tilux" It was used in wet areas in the the 50ies and 60ies and had a printed pattern on it. This little surprise was left for us in a Page residence by whoever did the previous renovation in 1992. They had gone to all the trouble of removing the Tilux and replacing it with Villaboard but left great chunks of this stuff in the wall cavities. It was lucky that we were wearing the appropriate personal protection when removing the villaboard. We then had to clean and PVA the entire bathroom even though it wasn't an asbestos removal as such. Even when you think you are safe you can be at risk.

Further reasearch.
ACT Government Asbestos information site
Although this site contains a huge amount of information, when I did a search of this site for "Mr Fluffy" I got 1 result for a PDF file and then that file is not found when clicked. Why is this not talked about more?

PDF Article on sick buildings
Very good read and puts some perspective on dangers. Written mainly for commercial buildings.

*Most information puts 1985 as the cut off for asbestos in building products but I know from personal experience that a home built in Richardson in 1986 had bathroom wall sheets that had warning stickers on the back stating they contained asbestos. So 1987 is my cut-off date as it appears there could have been old stock being used for some time after 1985.