The use of asbestos materials in New Zealand dates back to the early 1900s, however, asbestos construction materials were not commercially imported into New Zealand until the early 1930s. Given its remarkable physical properties including resistance to heat, electricity and fire, as well as tolerance for chemical damage, Asbestos was deemed the perfect material for building and manufacturing following the post-war construction boom.
What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral made up of miniscule fibres which can be divided up into two groups and six common types. White asbestos was the most commonly used in New Zealand, as it is extremely flexible and can be woven into different materials. Its versatility meant that it was widely utilised for household and building products.
Brown asbestos was the second most common form of asbestos used, with harsher, sharp fibres to those of white asbestos. It was often used in asbestos sheeting with cement, pipe insulation, ceiling tiles and insulation for boards and thermals.
The least commonly used and most dangerous asbestos fibre, was blue asbestos. That’s not to say it wasn’t exploited like the others. Blue asbestos is well known for its resistance to extremely high temperatures and water repellent properties.
Blue asbestos fibres are incredibly thin and can be easily inhaled, making them the most hazardous for human exposure. However, all forms of asbestos should be treated with considerable caution, as they all contain fibres that can be easily inhaled and cause significant health defects.
The Health Risks of Asbestos
Asbestos itself doesn’t pose a threat if the material is tightly bound or undisturbed. Until it is broken up, exposed or damaged, the fibres won’t release into the air. When asbestos does become airborne, the risk of inhalation is extremely high and dangerous.
The fibres themselves are tiny and are easily inhaled, where they essentially become trapped in the lungs. This build-up of tiny fibres in the lung cavities can contribute to serious health concerns such as asbestosis, mesothelioma, pleural plaquing, lung scar tissue, and lung cancer. Asbestos is New Zealand’s number one killer in the workplace with approximately 170 people dying every year from asbestos related diseases.
Asbestos in New Zealand
During the increased importation of asbestos into New Zealand, the fibres were being used to mix into cement for building materials. Houses built between 1940 and 1970 are likely to contain asbestos-cement sheet roofing, tiles, cladding, or planks. The asbestos cement was malleable, inexpensive, fire resistant and durable, making it a popular choice for residential building materials.
Auckland’s Penrose founded a factory that produced asbestos cement products. It worked with white, brown and blue asbestos and had up to 600 employees at any one time during its peak. The factory continued to manufacture asbestos cement materials until the 1980s.
Between the 1950s to 1970s, asbestos materials were also applied with spray techniques. This included decorative coatings on ceilings and walls and generally contained chrysotile (white) asbestos. Vinyl floor coverings were also made with chrysotile asbestos paper backings, as well as vinyl floor tiles, sprayed fire protection and roofing membranes.
Despite the wealth of knowledge and awareness of the dangers of asbestos use, the first regulations on asbestos didn’t come into effect until 1978. From the year 2000, New Zealand integrated extensive bans on the use of asbestos materials in construction. This means that sites built since then, are most likely free of asbestos. However, this leaves the majority of residential and commercial sites built before then to be likely contaminated with asbestos deadly fibres.
Asbestos Contaminated Homes
If your home was built or renovated between the 1940 and 1990, there is a strong change that asbestos materials were used in some capacity. It’s important as a homeowner or renter to understand the risks involved in living in a home with asbestos. Across the ditch in Australia, Brisbane Asbestos removal group GBAR advise their local clients to seek professional advice before completing any renovations on a home built in the second half of the 20th century.
The only way to truly know if materials contain asbestos is to have it properly tested. Asbestos testing and survey specialists will take samples of suspecting materials and have them analysed in a lab to determine their level of hazard. Although it can be tempting to skip this sample process, it’s crucial for those who are not certified, to avoid performing any invasive asbestos tests without the necessary licensing and training.
It’s often near impossible to spot asbestos in the home without a licensed professional. However, there are a few common problem areas homeowners should be wary of. These are the sorts of places asbestos may have been used, for the construction of your property:
If you’re just about to purchase a new home, it’s crucial you have it properly surveyed before signing everything off. Having a house inspection prior to purchasing will provide you with a comprehensive report on the condition of these problem areas in an older home.
While these areas may contain asbestos materials, they may not be an actual threat. Provided there are no plans to disturb, damage or expose the material, the asbestos fibres will not become airborne and asbestos exposure is not a risk. Exposure levels will depend on the condition of the material, the type of asbestos, and the precautions taken to avoid secondary exposure.
If asbestos materials have been detected, they need to be immediately removed to avoid further health risks. It’s incredibly important to find accredited class-A asbestos assessors to handle the asbestos materials, regardless of the location and state. Licensed professionals have the equipment, knowledge, training and experience to handle asbestos without putting your home and your family at risk of exposure.
Dean Norrie, Director/Building Inspector - LBP Qualified Builder, with 20+ years residential building experience, three generations of builder in the family.