What is asbestos ?
It’s a naturally occurring silicate mineral encased in rock, made up of up to millions of microscopic fibres. A milling process extracts these fibres to be able to add them to building material to make the product stronger, cheaper and longer lasting. These fibres are highly resistant to anything you could throw at them – heat, fire, chemicals – and they’re very strong!
Asbestos is categorised as a human carcinogen and, when inhaled, can cause cancer or seriously compromise the lungs. However, it is dose-dependent manner: The greater the exposure, the greater the risk.
Unfortunately, there is no known ‘safe’ level of exposure, so any exposure carries a risk. That’s why avoiding exposure to respirable fibres is the best way to keep yourself safe.
Materials in good condition and undisturbed aren’t a cause for concern but problems arise when they become damaged and asbestos fibres become airborne.
Over time, decades even, inhaling significant amounts of airborne fibres can cause detrimental diseases including scarring of lung tissue (asbestosis), thickening of the membranes around the lungs (pleural plaques) and eventually genetic damage and death.
Where cancer is concerned, the bad guy on the block is mesothelioma. It’s aggressive and almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure. But we can’t rule out other forms of cancer, such as progressive lung disease.
Where can you find it ?
We must assume that buildings constructed or renovated before 2000 have the potential to contain asbestos materials. These products include but are not limited to:
+ asbestos cement – e.g cladding, roofing, sheds
+ paper-backed vinyl
+ vinyl floor tiles
+ insulating board
+ ceiling tiles
+ textured coatings
+ lagging around pipes, heaters and hot water cylinders
+ boiler gaskets
+ door seals for ovens, kilns, furnaces and refrigeration units
+ fire doors
+ insulation blocks
+ electrical switch boards and fuses
+ car brake pads and brake dust
+ clutch plate assemblies
Who is most at risk ?
WorkSafe NZ estimates around 220 people die each year from potentially preventable asbestos-related diseases, two-thirds of whom are tradespeople. An Otago University study suggests asbestos could contribute to the deaths of around 450 people in New Zealand each year.
Australia estimates 4000 of its citizens are dying every year from asbestos-related diseases. The latest wave is DIYers. Given New Zealand has a similar housing profile to Australia, that could mean as many as 800 people are dying here each year.
Any number is too high. Importantly, it is preventable.
NZ caught up with international practice in 2016, when it introduced the Health and Safety at Work (Asbestos) Regulations. The regulations make it mandatory to test for and manage asbestos risks in a workplace.
It also makes it mandatory for workers who do “work involving asbestos” to be trained according to the Approved Code of Practice for the Management and Removal of Asbestos (ACOP). Unfortunately, many workers see the word “removal” and decide the ACOP and the regulations don’t apply to them, because they don’t remove asbestos.
Anyone who does maintenance or servicing work in a building built prior to 1 January 2000 is regarded as doing “work involving asbestos”. CoreLogic estimate that is 1,500,000 homes in this country, never mind the commercial premises, warehouses, hospitals, factories, rest homes, etc.
Workers must be trained to identify the risks and safely manage them.
Where does MCG come in ?
As mentioned, the exposure comes from when ACM is damaged and the asbestos fibres become airborne. Generally speaking, ACM that is in good condition are a-o-kay.
Fibres are released when physical actions disturb the product, whether it be deliberate like sanding, drilling, sawing during maintenance or repair or accidental like an earthquake. If you’re in the trades, this can happen more often than you realise, and therein lies the concern.
MCG can help you to identify and manage your asbestos risks sensibly and your responsibilities simply.