Asbestos is almost a dirty word in New Zealand. You have no doubt heard about it and know it's bad, but perhaps you are unsure exactly why. This group of silicate minerals is the biggest cause of workplace cancers on the planet and can spell disaster for your health if not managed correctly.
If you are looking to renovate your house or business, it is important to understand the health hazards and regulations surrounding asbestos so you can get stuck in without compromising the health of you, your family, or your neighbours.
What is asbestos?
The term asbestos refers to a group of natural silicate minerals that are prized for their resistance to heat, electricity, and chemical corrosion. There are six known varieties of asbestos, the most common that you are likely to find in your house is white asbestos (chrysotile).
These minerals are comprised of minuscule fibres and can be manipulated to have a "fluffy" texture. While pure asbestos makes a fantastic insulator, these minerals can also be mixed with other compounds like cloth, paper, cement and plastic.
What is asbestos used for?
Asbestos was used extensively around the globe in the 1900s. In New Zealand, it was used intensively from the 1930s right through to 1986, when some basic guidelines around its use were introduced. Imports weren’t banned until 2016.
Asbestos was used in such a huge variety of applications, from fireproofing skyscrapers to lining brakes and clutches in motor vehicles. Most commonly, it was used in building and construction, because of its fire-retardant and heat-resistant qualities.
Heavily used in NZ houses between 1930 and 1950 - but still around for decades after, these are some of the most common uses for asbestos:
mixed with cement for sheet cladding,
roofing or drainage pipes,
backing material for floor tiles or vinyl sheets,
insulation around heaters and hot water cylinders,
mixed with textured paint on walls or ceilings,
walls and floors surrounding wood-burner stoves,
vinyl or linoleum flooring.
It was even used in common household items like oven gloves and ironing board pads.
How can you spot it?
Because asbestos is used so widely and in so many ways, it is impossible to identify it just by looking. The only way to be 100% sure is by getting a sample analysed in an approved lab. Note that you should not attempt to take your own sample. Instead, ask a trusted professional who has experience working with asbestos.
If you are concerned, check out this risk assessment sheet provided by the government, to see what the chances are that your home contains asbestos.
Why is asbestos dangerous?
While there is little danger from intact asbestos, the risks compound if the material containing it is damaged - either during building work, maintenance or through general wear and tear.
Because asbestos is made up of microscopic fibres that can’t be seen, smelled or tasted, it is easy to ingest or consume them without knowing. These tiny fibres enter the body and can’t be expelled. They never break down and over decades start to cause inflammation and serious long-term damage to the body’s cells.
Exposure to asbestos most commonly damages the lung tissues and membranes, causing scarring (asbestosis), fatal tumours (mesothelioma), cancers and a variety of other issues. These illnesses don’t show up immediately, often taking 20 to 30 years to develop.
Sadly, asbestos-related illnesses kill around 170 people in New Zealand every year. In fact, it is the number one reason for workplace-related deaths in the country.
What should I do if I find asbestos in my home?
Home renovators should consider the risks before getting started, take time to do some research and talk to a professional. As of April 2018, homeowners that are renovating a house that contains asbestos must have a written asbestos management plan. It should cover the identification of asbestos, how to manage the risks, and how to deal with incidents involving asbestos.
There are different methods for dealing with asbestos, which may include sealing, encapsulating or enclosing it; however, if intact, it may be better to leave it alone.