Essential reading on asbestos exposure for home handypersons or anyone considering their own home renovations. Dr Melissa Stoneham reports on a new study showing that the majority of people undertaking DIY renovations are failing to protect themselves from the dangers of asbestos. She writes:

With home improvement shows such as House Rules, Backyard Blitz and The Block becoming ever more popular and with people of all ages tuning in, there are plenty of opportunities for the everyday person to get some great ideas for their next remodelling project. However, one of the flip sides to these shows, is the increased risk of home handymen (and women) being exposed to hazards such as asbestos fibres. Houses built in Australia before 1990 have been known to contain some asbestos materials. Asbestos was a popular component in building products ranging from floor and ceiling tiles to insulation, roofing material and fencing for decades. Once prized for its strength and durability, companies gradually stopped using asbestos after it was linked to mesothelioma and other health problems. Australia has since instituted a total ban on the use and importation of asbestos.

Asbestos fibres are not visible to the naked eye but, they are very light, remain airborne for a long time, and can be carried by wind and air currents over large distances. Exposure to asbestos fibres, which can lodge deep in the lungs, can lead to pleural plaques, asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. Recently, media around asbestos has increased its risk profile and caused concern in the general public. However, if left undisturbed, asbestos cement materials in good condition do not pose a health risk because the asbestos fibres are bound together in solid cement.

A report in the Australian Medical Journal of Australia, titled “Asbestos exposure during home renovation in New South Wales” examined this issue in further detail. The research team, which included UNSW Associate Professor Deborah Yates, a thoracic physician at the St Vincent’s Clinical School, administered a postal survey in 2008,  to 10 000 New South Wales adults who were randomly selected from the electoral roll. The questionnaire examined renovation activity, tasks undertaken during renovation and family members reportedly exposed to asbestos.

A response rate of 37.5 per cent was achieved and from those who responded, more than 44 per cent (n=858) had renovated their home, with around half being do-it-yourself (DIY) renovators.

The results indicated that more than 60 per cent, or 527 people, reported being exposed to asbestos during their home renovations and just over 39 per cent reported that their partner had been exposed to asbestos during renovations.  A little over a fifth (22.8%; n=196) of respondents also reported that their children had been exposed to asbestos during renovations. Around 14 per cent of renovators reported that they planned further home renovations in the next five years.

When asked about the use of protective equipment, only 12 per cent of the DIY renovators reported using respiratory protection regularly, while 28.4 per cent used it “occasionally”, illustrating that even basic precautions providing protection against asbestos inhalation are often not used in many DIY renovations.

Although a number of limitations were noted including, the relatively low response rate and that participants were younger than usual NSW residents, this study suggests that home renovators need to be made more aware of the risks of asbestos exposure. Safe asbestos removal requires the use of protective gear, negative pressure respirators and special handling techniques. Home renovators who suspect they may have asbestos in their home are urged to hire experienced and licensed professionals to undertake the removal.

The Environmental Health Standing Committee (enHealth) in March this year, released “Asbestos—A guide for householders and the general public” which provides information to enable householders to sensibly and safely manage the risks arising from any occasional encounters with asbestos materials in and around their homes.

The guide is endorsed by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee and was prepared in consultation with State and Territory governments and the Australian Government.The guide, which took two years to complete, was developed in response to the high volume of individual householders enquiries received by State, Territory and local government environmental health units in relation to asbestos identification and management. This easy to follow guide provides useful information and includes six steps for reducing the risk of exposure and do and don’ts for handling asbestos materials.

The authors of this month’s journal article finish off their paper, by suggesting that although recommendations have been made for asbestos removal in the commercial sector, active steps also need to be taken to prevent future possible disease in the residential sector. They state that whether exposure during home renovation will result in disease in the future remains to be seen, it is an entirely preventable exposure that needs to be addressed. I agree and it seems sensible to better market and promote the existing resource developed by enHealth to all potential home handymen across Australia.  

Article: Asbestos exposure during home renovation in New South Wales. Eun-Kee Park, Deborah H Yates, Rebecca A Hyland and Anthony R Johnson.  Medical Journal of Australia 2013; 199 (6): 410-413.


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The Public Health Advocacy Institute WA (PHAIWA) JournalWatch service reviews 10 key public health journals on a monthly basis, providing a précis of articles that highlight key public health and advocacy related findings, with an emphasis on findings that can be readily translated into policy or practice.

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Australian & New Zealand Journal of Public Health (ANZJPH)

Journal of Public Health Policy (JPHP)

Health Promotion Journal of Australia (HPJA)

Medical Journal of Australia (MJA)

The Lancet

Journal for Water Sanitation and Hygiene Development

Tobacco Control (TC)

American Journal of Public Health (AMJPH)

Health Promotion International (HPI)

American Journal of Preventive Medicine (AJPM)

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