A busy mum, two little kids playing on the carpet in the corridor. She is busy pulling out an old gas heater from the cavity in the wall. Dust everywhere. She wants to recreate the old fashioned open fireplace that was there. The job will take a few days, she’s not in a hurry. Then the neighbour asks her gently, “Have you checked, we had asbestos behind our fireplace?” Mum’s blood goes cold. She looks at the kids.
‘Who in their right mind would buy asbestos?’ you may ask. After all the publicity, the growing numbers of tragic mesothelioma sufferers in Australia, the lung cancers, the famous court cases, the Hardies’ debacle.
There are three main ways you can still buy asbestos in Australia. First, a small number of components used in industry and the defence forces still contain asbestos in sealed conditions. For example, a shock absorber in the front wheel assembly of an aeroplane may contain an asbestos gasket. Certain specialised gaskets used in segments of the chemical industry may contain asbestos. The risk to workers and the general public is very small.
Then you can buy asbestos when you purchase gravel made from crushed masonry from demolished buildings that contained asbestos. Some 10 million tonnes of such bricks and concrete are recycled every year in Australia. A few tonnes of that may be recycled asbestos containing materials. Nevertheless, even if the total was only 10 tonnes or even just 1 across all of Australia, it’s too much if the gravel containing some of it is used as fill material in the school my grand daughter goes to. Or around the garage of the new home I’m building.
However, the worst risk is associated with buying houses that have asbestos containing materials. Not only is that the worst risk, but by being multiplied hundreds of thousands of times across the country the likelihood increased that over time many people will be exposed.
Buyer beware! It will only be accurate knowledge, continuous vigilance, caution or luck that will keep these dangerous fibres out of your lungs. Any renovation may increase the risk. Any damage to such materials will increase the risk. Any sanding of such materials will increase the risk. Any passing trucks that generate vibration may increase the risk.
No one, not any expert, nor any miner of asbestos fibres, or manufacturer of asbestos containing materials has ever said that more asbestos fibres in the lungs is better than less.
All real estate institutes ought to insist that the properties their members handle are not exporting the danger of asbestos to yet another generation. It’s not illegal to sell such property, nor – as yet – is it a legal requirement to alert the buyer that the structure has asbestos. Don’t believe the ‘asbestos is safe if undisturbed’ assurance. If it can be disturbed, one day it will be. Whose children will be exposed then?
So ask before you buy: is this building asbestos free?
Dr Yossi Berger
National OHS Co-ordinator
Australian Workers’ Union
5 thoughts on “Who would buy asbestos?”
you’re right to note their usage in this context. I’ve always been uneasy about soluble, ‘safer’ SMFs (synthetic mineral fibres – fibreglass, rockwool, ceramic fibres). I’ve never accepted that it’s okay to use people’s lungs as interim, time receptacles for any foreign bodies so they ‘dis-arm’ themselves and dissolve into my system body. Seems to me like an awful primitive way to safeguard people’s health. It’s particularly annoying because the designers (inventors) of the product must’ve thought that’s a good way to promote it.
Yes, there are a lot of the older SMFs throughout the community. The condition of some of it in industry is shameful and dangerous. Ceramic fibres are particularly worrying.
Every time you see a disaster scene, post flood, post fire, post earth quake, you always see sheets of SMFs blowing about the place.
An extremely important issue – we have laws in various States about dislcosure of sustainability ratings, council rates, certain outgoings, connected services, building approvals and more … most relating to economic / financial considerations.
However despite the widespread use of asbestos in walls, ceilings, pipe lagging, floor coverings and other areas in domestic homes, and the proliferation of DIY home renovations, there are no asbestos disclosure obligations.
Even a generic booklet being made mandatory for example in all sales of homes built prior to a certain date, which highlights to the buyer the common uses of asbestos in domestic premises and the associated risks and precautions if works or other activities may disturb it, would be a good starting point.
Note that none of my extended family were smokers, while both BHP Transport managers were/had been long term smokers.
Problem with asbestos is that it is quite obvious that some people are more susceptable than others. THere are proably genetic factors as well as compounding factors like smoking.
I and my brothers helped my dad and his brothers (and a mate running a demolition business) demolish many “fibro-cement” structures in the 1950’2 to 1970’s. Yet not one of all those involved including cousins have contracted mesotheliomia.
In contrast two of the BHP Transport managers I worked with who had worked on marine engines with asbestos lagging have died of mesotheliomia.
I wonder how Yossi feels about the new biosoluble and “cancer-exonerated” SMFs? Or the old ones that are probably in many more homes than asbestos?