What you should know about renovating and asbestos

We all love making our own home better to live in, but are we aware of the risks? 

Many amateur renovators aren’t aware of some of the hidden renovating risks. For instance, you only have to inhale one tiny dot of asbestos into your lungs and there’s a chance, many years later, you could develop mesothelioma – a deadly cancer of the lungs and chest wall.

In the past, the people who were being diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma were mostly men who’d been exposed to asbestos through their work as tradesmen. However, more recently, this has changed with current research showing more people – including women – are exposing themselves to very slight amounts of asbestos when they do simple home renovations.

A recent study by Professor Eun-Kee Park into Asbestos exposure during home renovations in NSW showed: 

  • 61.4 per cent of DIY renovators reported being exposed to asbestos during home renovations.
  • 39.3 per cent reported their partner and 22.8 per cent reported their children, were also exposed to asbestos during home DIY home renovations.
  • Non DIY renovators were less likely to be exposed or have their families exposed.

In Australia, at least one house in every three has some asbestos in it

Asbestos was widely used in Australian homes before 1987 and so to help get this information to the general public, this month is National Asbestos Awareness Month.

John Jarratt wants to help spread the message
Well-known Australian actor, John Jarratt, feels strongly about asbestos exposure because he had a close friend, Harold Hopkins, die from mesothelioma at the age of 67. Because of Hopkins story Jarratt agreed to be a spokesperson for National Asbestos Awareness.

Jarratt’s friend was a fellow actor and when he was studying his craft, used to work in the building trade, renovating houses. In 1968, he renovated a fibro house and was exposed to the asbestos fibres.

“He ended up with mesothelioma,” says Jarratt. “It killed him in six months, once he was diagnosed.”

John -jarratt -asbestos -campaign -wyza
John Jarratt is a strong advocate of the Asbestos Awareness Month Campaign

A few seconds of exposure is all it takes
Jarratt is aware of just how easy it is to expose yourself to asbestos accidentally – even just momentarily – but he says that’s enough to be a death sentence. Jarratt also worked in the building industry when he was an up-and-coming actor, and he’s seen first-hand how easy it is to accidentally come across asbestos.

“It’s potent stuff. Only one tiny little dot of it goes into your lungs, and you’re gone,” he says.

The trick with mesothelioma is the fact it can lay dormant for between 20 and 50 years but when it does develop, it’s usually at a rapid pace. Unfortunately, there’s no cure for mesothelioma and the average survival time is 10 to 12 months following diagnosis. As well as mesothelioma, you can develop lung cancer, asbestosis and benign pleural disease from inhaling asbestos fibres.

“It can lay dormant a long, long time,” says Jarratt. “I could be down the drain myself because I was raised in a fibro house myself in a little coal-mining village on the south coast of New South Wales.”

“Every time my mum got pregnant, the old man was out there cutting up sheets of fibro and building another room. And we were all sucking it all in, helping him out. So I could just as easily suffer for it – who knows?” he explains.

Jarratt is quick to point out, it doesn’t matter how careful you are after you’ve been exposed. His friend, Hopkins, was a vegan and kept himself extremely fit.

“If you wanted to put money on somebody to get to 100, you’d put all your money on Harold. He ran 15k, which was his morning run and halfway through his hundred push ups he got a pain in the chest. Six months later he was dead,” says Jarratt. “But none of that helps – once you’ve been exposed, there’s nothing much you can really do.”

“Also, unfortunately you can be susceptible to it too. That’s the other thing. You can be a lucky guy and have a strong immunity to it or maybe not,” Jarratt adds.

It’s easy to check if your house has asbestos
Jarratt emphasises it’s very easy to be proactive and find out if your house has asbestos in it.

“You go to your local council. Every council in Australia knows about it,” says Jarratt. “You just go there and they’ll give you a leaflet on it and that’ll tell you exactly what to do and what the problems are. It’s all very well organised in that regard.”

“If your house is pre-1987, it’ll most definitely have asbestos in it – could be the back board of your meter box. It’s everywhere. You know those old hot water services that used to be in the roof? They usually sit on a bed of asbestos. So it’s in all sorts of places,” he adds.

As for DIY renovating, Jarratt warns it’s important to know what you’re doing: “If you’ve got an old house and some timber cladding, you’ve got to make sure that someone hasn’t put that over fibro which is very common.”

“Just don’t bore a hole into a wall unless you know what it’s all made of,” he adds. “I know, because I’ve done a lot of building. I just simply go under the house and look up through the stud wall and see on the inside, all the sheeting. That’s the only way you can see the sheeting so that’s what experts who know what they’re doing, do,” he explains.


Midnight Oil's homage to the asbestos miners of Wittenoom, W.A

Jarratt adds there’s no safe level of working with asbestos.

“Look, I’ve been exposed to it all my life because I’ve built houses in between acting jobs. I mean, it’s very extensive in this country. I mean they call the working class the fibro belt for god’s sake,” he laughs.

But as Jarratt explains, if you find some fibro in your house and don’t touch it, you’re fine. “If you don’t touch it you’re fine – don’t touch it. You can paint it – that’s fine. But don’t go sanding!!! Leave it alone and get advice – it’s not worth it!”

It’s important to keep in mind, asbestos is not only found in fibro homes. Australia was among one of the largest consumers of asbestos-containing materials in the world with asbestos-containing products still found in one in three brick, weatherboard, fibro or clad homes built or renovated before 1987.

Asbestos was also used in the manufacture of a broad range of products. It can literally be anywhere! Under-floor coverings including carpets, linoleum and vinyl tiles, behind wall and floor tiles, in cement floors, internal and external walls, ceilings and ceiling space (insulation), eaves, garages, roofs, around hot water pipes, fences, extensions to homes, garages, outdoor toilets, backyard and farm structures, chook sheds and even dog kennels.

Without knowing where these types of asbestos-containing products might be located or how to manage and dispose of asbestos safely, you can end up at risk when you try to renovate your house yourself.

Asbestos exposure is common during home renovations
To find out more about asbestos and where it could be in your house, take a look at the Asbestos Awareness site here. This site will make it easy for you to identify the sorts of products you need to look out for, the locations where asbestos might be found and how you need to get professional help to manage and dispose of asbestos safely.

The video below with Cherie Barber will help you identify the various locations in homes where asbestos might be found in your home, providing the most practical and easily accessible resource for homeowners, renovators and tradespersons.

Asbestos Safety Check

1. At least 1 in 3 Australian homes contains asbestos including brick, weatherboard, fibro and clad homes. 

2. Asbestos was widely used in building materials before 1987 so if your home was built or renovated before 1987 it most likely contains asbestos in some form or another.

3. If asbestos is disturbed during renovations or maintenance your health and the health of your family could be at risk.

4. DIY is not recommended where asbestos is present.

5. When renovating or working in and around homes, if in doubt assume asbestos materials are present and take every precaution.

6. Dealing with asbestos is important and serious, but it’s not overwhelming – it is manageable!

7. If you’re not sure if asbestos is in your home you can have it inspected by a licenced removalist or a licensed asbestos assessor.

8. Products made from asbestos cement include fibro sheeting (flat and corrugated), water, drainage and flue pipes, roofing shingles, guttering and floor and wall coverings.

9. If left undisturbed asbestos materials in good, stable condition are unlikely to release dangerous fibres and pose a health risk. Generally, you don’t need to remove the asbestos. Paint it and leave it alone but remember to check it occasionally for any signs of wear and tear.

10. There are legal requirements regarding asbestos management, its removal and disposal.

11. While some might follow the regulations and safety requirements to remove small amounts of asbestos, the safest way to manage its removal is to retain a licenced professional asbestos removalist equipped to protect you and your family from the dangers of asbestos dust and fibres.

12. Where asbestos fibres are friable (loose and not bonded into building materials), ONLY licenced friable asbestos removalists are allowed to remove it.

13. The cost of asbestos removal by a licenced professional is comparable to most licenced tradesmen including electricians, plumbers and tilers.

14. If you must work with any material that may contain asbestos or remove asbestos yourself, protect yourself and your family and follow the legal and safety requirements for the management of asbestos to minimise the release of dust or small particles from the asbestos materials.

15. Never use tools on asbestos materials as they will make asbestos fibres.

Have you renovated a home? What precautions have you taken? 

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