DIY renovators now most at risk of Asbestos cancers

A study published in the Medical Journal of Australia says the increase in the number of malignant mesothelioma cases in Western Australia over the past decade is the result of home renovation and do-it-yourself (DIY) projects involving building products containing Asbestos.

This domestic exposure has been described as part of the “third wave” of Asbestos-related diseases, the first being in miners, millers and transport workers, and the second in workers who used Asbestos products.

When did we first find out about the harmful effect Asbestos has on health?

The West Australian Mesothelioma Registry has recorded every case of mesothelioma that has occurred in the state ever since the start of the epidemic in the early 1960s.

What we’ve been looking at is where Asbestos exposure comes from. In the early period, the greatest proportion of the cases was people who were mining Asbestos in the Wittenoom Gorge in Western Australia’s Pilbara Region.

With time, the number of cases from Wittenoom has stayed fairly level because the mines in Wittenoom were closed in 1966. They‘re still happening but the number of people at risk is reducing.

The second wave of cases of mesothelioma was in people who’d been using Asbestos, such as carpenters and mechanics. Anybody who used Asbestos as part of their trade was at risk and those cases have been getting proportionally greater.

Now we’ve got a growing number of people who’ve been exposed through doing-it-yourself jobs at home. Like the others, the risk for people renovating or undertaking DIY projects is proportional to the amount of Asbestos they’re exposed to. There are lots of people out there who do their own little jobs at home and their individual risks are small but because of the large number of people doing this kind of thing, the number of cases has been increasing.

Where is this exposure coming from?

Asbestos was used a lot in the 1950s and 1960s as building material. And there’s nothing wrong with it as a building material, it’s just the health problems that we’re worried about. So there were lots of Asbestos roofs on houses, especially during this time but it reduced soon after because better materials came on board and the health risks started to be recognised. It’s those older houses that are most likely to contain Asbestos.

If people think there’s Asbestos in their house, they shouldn’t touch it, they should get it identified and if there’re going to remove it, they should take all the recommended precautions for removal. This is a preventable disease and avoiding exposure to Asbestos is the best way to avoid it.

How to Identify Asbestos 

Identify bonded and non-friable Asbestos samples with the Enviroscience Asbestos testing kit which instructs you on the correct and safe way to take a sample of the suspect material and offers a free postage testing service that is NATA approved. Download the test kit for Asbestos here.

How can we avoid exposure?

There are regulations about how Asbestos should be handled at home or anywhere else for that matter. People doing home renovations often don’t abide by those sort of rules – wearing protection, closing the job they’re doing, wetting it down and preventing exposure to the airborne fibres.

Really you shouldn’t be removing Asbestos without observing proper precautions and there’s no great rush to remove Asbestos – it’s often safer being left where it is than it is being disturbed.

How else can we be exposed to Asbestos?

Asbestos is around us all the time and it has been for years as a result of people using it. There’s Asbestos in brake lining, for instance, which may get released into the atmosphere. Motor mechanics and people working on engines where the exhaust had been covered by Asbestos were a significant part of the second wave of people to be diagnosed with mesothelioma.

Between all these sorts of activities, there’s Asbestos being released into the atmosphere in urban environments so we all have a few Asbestos fibres in our lungs. The risk is related to how much there is. This sort of environmental exposure doesn’t have a big impact on the individual’s risk but over the whole of the population, a few people getting mesothelioma mounts up and that’s the effect we’re seeing.

Asbestos Building Materials, why was it used?

Large-scale mining of Asbestos began at the end of the 19th century. Manufacturers and builders began using Asbestos for its desirable physical properties: sound absorption, average tensile strength, resistance to fire, heat, electricity, and affordability. If you are concerned about suspect Asbestos materials in your home or building site,  download the Asbestos test kit and make sure you know what you’re dealing with. Regional Enviroscience also provides as well as the risk assessment a scope of works for the contractors on-site to ensure that remediation works are carried out safely and in accordance with current legislation.

Juliet Duffy holds a Master of Sustainable Management from Sydney University, is a Licensed Asbestos Assessor and has been managing environmental health issues since 1988. Juliet is Director of Regional Enviroscience – an NATA Accredited Asbestos & hazardous materials laboratory and occupational health consultancy based in regional NSW – Hunter Valley, Central NSW and the Riverina.