One in three homes in Australia contains asbestos. In fact, the majority of homes built or renovated before 1987 have asbestos somewhere, either inside the house, or surrounding the house.

Asbestos sounds like a bad word. But what is exactly is it, and what are the risks?

House Asbesto

What is asbestos?

Asbestos refers to microscopic, naturally occurring fibres that resist heat, fire and electricity. Asbestos fibres were frequently used in industrial, private and public buildings throughout the 20th century because of their incredible durability. Asbestos was used in a range of building materials, including wall cladding, fences, walls, eaves and floors.

Why is asbestos dangerous?

Asbestos microfibres have been found to be dangerous because they are easily airborne and inhaled. Once inside the body, asbestos particles attach to body tissue. Asbestos has been found to cause mesothelioma, a rare but fatal cancer, which can develop in the lungs, stomach or heart. Australia has the highest rates of malignant mesothelioma in the world, due to building practices in the 20th century. Asbestos has also been linked to lung cancer and asbestosis, a degenerative respiratory disease.

How can I recognise asbestos?

Asbestos can be found in numerous building materials, so is often difficult to recognise. One of the biggest clues is the age of your house. If the house was built or renovated before the 1980s, there is a high chance asbestos was used.

Because of its durability and waterproof nature, asbestos is often used in external areas as well as bathrooms, laundries and kitchens.

If you can’t identify a material as pure steel, wood or brick, you should get it checked for asbestos. Also consider areas that can’t be accessed, like internal walls or under the house. A house plan can help you identify these areas.

What should I do if I suspect asbestos is present?

If you are buying a home or apartment, it’s important to arrange a building inspection. This is especially important if you suspect asbestos is present.

Use a qualified inspector to identify any asbestos. The inspector needs to be trained and experienced in identifying asbestos and may need to send samples for testing. An occupational hygienist is generally trained in asbestos detection.

Do I need to remove asbestos?

If asbestos is undisturbed, microfibres are contained and should not be dangerous. However, if you are renovating, or wish to remove asbestos, it is highly recommended you engage a licensed professional, as asbestos removal is complicated and potentially dangerous.

Each state and territory has its own legislation and regulations around asbestos removal, so make sure you are familiar with the guidelines relevant to you.