So what is asbestos and how dangerous is it?

Most houses in New Zealand built before 1975 are likely to have asbestos products somewhere.
Asbestos-containing products have a lifetime of 25 to 50 years, and when repairs, renovation, or demolition takes place the asbestos is then exposed beneath cladding, ceiling tiles, or vinyl flooring.

Asbestos was used extensively in building in the 20th century until its harmful effects became known. It is the chief cause of an aggressive cancer called mesothelioma, along with other fatal diseases.

Asbestos is particularly nasty because its fibres can be very, very fine—routinely below 20 microns in diameter, versus around 100 micrometres for a human hair—and when inhaled these fibres can lodge in the lungs and remain there for life. Fibres can accumulate and cause scarring and inflammation. Enough scarring and inflammation can affect breathing, leading to disease.

People are more likely to experience asbestos-related disorders when they are exposed to high concentrations of asbestos, are exposed for longer periods of time, and/or are exposed more often. The best example of this in recent times is the aftermath of the World Trade Centre attacks of September 11, 2001. Firemen, victims, and rescue workers involved have suffered asbestos-related cancers and lung problems because of the massive dose of asbestos fibres they inhaled in the aftermath of the collapse of the buildings. Instead of the usual 20-year onset of disease, some victims are showing signs of mesothelioma after only 10 years because of the high dose they were exposed to.

There are two main types of asbestos:

Friable asbestos is loosely bonded, and is potentially very dangerous because it can crumble and release fibres into the air.
Non-friable asbestos is a bonded asbestos that is found in a number of building materials. It can become friable if it is weathered or damaged.
Friable asbestos was commonly used as lagging rope on water pipes, around the doors of old domestic heaters, and inside fire places. Other uses have included the manufacturing of sheet vinyl flooring as backing and as loose insulation in a roof.

The biggest danger in removing asbestos is from floor sanding to remove backing from asbestos-containing vinyl floors.

So how can you identify which vinyl has asbestos backing?
You can’t determine whether a vinyl contains asbestos simply by looking at it.
You have to assess the vinyl in the context of the building age and the age of other products that have been used in conjunction with it.
There is often a misconception that asbestos will look like old insulation stuffing, or like plaster dust from a textured ceiling, but asbestos fibres are microscopic and can’t be seen by the naked eye. Also, asbestos was often mixed with other materials in the building process, and is hidden within many commonly used building products. These two factors make asbestos very difficult to identify.

What types of flooring industry products contain asbestos?

• Vinyl tiles and sheets
• Lino tiles and sheets
• Backing paper
• Glues
• Screeds

The most dangerous of these products is asbestos vinyl sheet flooring. Vinyl sheet flooring comes in large pieces and is usually cut to the size of the room and laid down in one piece. This type of flooring often has an asbestos backing that is considered friable, and the fibres are easily released if the material is disturbed or damaged.
Flooring installers and home renovators sanding back flooring have the greatest risk of exposure.
Many floors will have had multiple renovations over the years, with the common practice being to simply lay new flooring on top of existing flooring. So, often asbestos can be found in multiple layers.

What is the likelihood of finding asbestos?

As a general rule, if a building was built:

Between the late 1940s – 1980’s It is highly likely that you will find asbestos-containing products
Between the 1980s – late 1990s It is likely to contain asbestos-containing products
After the 1990s It is unlikely to contain asbestos-containing products.
However, you will need to be aware as there may still be some materials or products present that do contain some asbestos, so tread carefully.

If you find asbestos in good condition, the best advice is to leave it alone. It should not be worked on or removed without seeking professional advice.
Remember, even a small amount of asbestos dust is potentially lethal. So don’t start work if you’re in any doubt.

Asbestos consultant Terry Coleman:

“I was called in to test a hospital floor that had seven layers of vinyl. We tested each level, which would have spanned a 40-year history of renovations. Out of the seven layers, two tested positive for asbestos.”

How do you identify vinyl flooring that is backed by asbestos?

Vinyl flooring and wallpaper that contain asbestos cannot be recognised on sight. The only way to be completely sure if a vinyl backing contains asbestos is to get it tested.

What do you do if you suspect asbestos?

If you suspect that a home has asbestos, do not try to test or remove the materials yourself. This should only be handled by a licensed asbestos contractor.

With the new health and safety regulations that came into place this year the safe handling of asbestos is a critical factor for directorial governance and risk management.

Under the new regulations, any company carrying out renovations will be considered a Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBU) and therefore will be directly liable for the risks and consequences of any unsafe asbestos-removal practices. We recommend that you leave testing and removal to the professionals.

How ARNZ can help

Asbestos is one area where rigor, correct procedure, and paperwork are important, both to keep people safe and to protect you from potential legal consequences in the future.
Speak to us with your concerns. We are always happy to talk to contractors if you need advice about how to manage a removal project. You can count on us to fulfil all the correct removal protocols to ensure the highest standards of health and safety at all times so you can meet your duty of care in complete confidence.
For more information and advice about asbestos contact us