Where can we find asbestos in our home?

Now that we know a lot more today about the health risks of asbestos, you might be wondering: where can we find asbestos? Do we still use asbestos today?

In Australia, we placed a total ban on the manufacture, use, reuse, import, transport, storage or sale of all forms of asbestos from 31 December 2003. Today, we aren’t producing or importing any new products that contain asbestos.

However, we used asbestos widely in manufacturing in the last century, particularly from the 1940s until the late 1980s. As a result, older buildings can still contain asbestos material. Therein lies the danger: while it’s safe to say that a house built today wouldn’t contain any asbestos, living in an older building could still expose you to health risks.

A history of asbestos in Australia

Commercial industries started using asbestos products from the late 1800s for insulation, soundproofing and fireproofing. In Australia, asbestos cement materials were widely used in residential building materials from the mid-1940s until the late 1980s. Until the 1980s, Australia had one of the highest rates of asbestos use per person in the world. During the mid to late 1980s, asbestos materials were phased out in favour of asbestos-free ones. A couple of decades later, in December 2003, we placed a total ban on all asbestos products.

However, the widespread use of asbestos in residential buildings during the 20th century has had a marked impact on Australian housing, even today. For example, in New South Wales, it’s estimated that 1 in 3 houses built or renovated between 1945 and 1990 still have asbestos-containing material. So, despite the ban on asbestos-containing products in new housing, people can still dwell in buildings that contain asbestos.

Which houses most likely contain asbestos?

The Environmental Health Standing Committee of Australia in 2013 categorised the risk of asbestos in a house according to the year in which they were built.

As a rule, if your house was built:

  • before the mid-1980s: there’s a high chance that it has asbestos
  • between the mid-1980s and 1990: there’s a chance that it has asbestos
  • after 1990: there’s a low chance that it has asbestos. However, some houses built in the 1990s and early 2000s may have used asbestos materials before the total ban in December 2003.

What kinds of products might contain asbestos?

There are two types of asbestos-containing products: 1) friable products and 2) bonded products.

Friable products are soft, loose, and crumbly. They usually contain high levels of asbestos, sometimes reaching up to 100 per cent asbestos. Bonded (or non-friable) asbestos products are made from a bonding compound, such as cement, mixed with smaller amounts of asbestos. 

Friable asbestos products are dangerous since their fibres get released into the air very easily. People can inhale these fibres and become ill from asbestos-related diseases. 

Bonded asbestos products, on the other hand, do not normally release any fibres into the air until they are damaged. One they are damaged, they can become friable, posing the same level of risk as other friable asbestos products.

Most of the asbestos-containing products used in houses in the past were bonded products. These included:

  • roofing
  • exterior and interior wall cladding
  • fencing
  • thermal boards around fireplaces
  • water pipes.

However, the more dangerous friable asbestos products can still be in older homes, including:

  • wood stoves
  • loose-fill roofing insulation
  • spray-on soundproofing
  • insulation on hot-water pipes or domestic heaters
  • hail or fire-damaged asbestos cement materials

Remember, asbestos is dangerous when people breathe in its fibres. Asbestos in the home poses a low risk when sealed away and undamaged. However, the danger comes with renovation or demolition, which can release asbestos fibres into the air.

Wrapping up

In Australia, we banned the use, manufacture and import of all asbestos-containing materials in December 2003. So, legally we cannot produce, import or use asbestos in Australia. However, residual asbestos can still be found in older homes, especially those built before 1990. Therefore, living in a house built or renovated during an older era still poses a risk to your health.

If you are concerned about asbestos in your home, contact a professional to help you. The experts at Envirofree can offer environmental consulting services for your home, including asbestos removal. We also provide other services such as mould and methamphetamine testing.