An introduction to asbestos use in home building.

I guess that there are few home-owners that have not heard of the dangers of asbestos in homes. However at the risk of sounding trite, it cannot be repeated often enough,
in all it's varying forms it is a potential killer.

So why should I stick my nose into the already large pool of data out there on this subject?

  • My first job in Australia in 1964 was as a journeyman carpenter cladding timber frame houses with "Fibro".
  • As a subcontractor and main contractor I have fixed various products inside and outside of homes, that contain the deadly stuff.
  • For a few years before I retired in 2005 I was a licensed removalist and supervised the safe removal of it from many demolition and home renovation sites.
  • I had two mates who both died of Mesothelioma.

So in effect, like most people around my age who have been involved in the building game here in Australia, for a large part of my working life I couldn't avoid the stuff.

1930's house with fibro wall and roof sheeting
A 1930's house with wall and roof sheeting of Fibro materials.

A naturally occurring silicate, asbestos is mined in various areas of the world, with Russia and Canada being major suppliers.
In Australia it was first mined at the now infamous Wittenoon mine in 1938.
The ancient Greek word for inextinguishable gives us the modern word. They used it for the wicks in continually burning lamps, and the Romans are said to have had a cloth made out of it.
Both the Greeks and Romans knew of the health problems. "A sickness in the lungs" in the material workers, was noted by the Roman scholar Pliny The Elder.
Even though the dangers were well known, (asbestosis was recognised officially in 1924), it was not until the 1980,s that it it's use in building materials was finally banned in Australia.

Fibrous Asbestos Cement products, like the wall and roof sheeting on this classic 1930's house, are commonly called Fibro,or AC sheeting in Australia. Building specifications used to refer to " FAC sheeting". Some people still use the term Fibro for any flat cement sheet, but here I will use the term to mean products containing asbestos fibres. The name probably comes from the James Hardie and Co product "Fibrolite"

Thin cement sheets, which are as thin as 4.5mm thick, have to be reinforced with fibres and for a long time those were asbestos fibres. Now the reinforcing fibres in similar sheets are usually cellulose.

Fibro is a building product that has been around for a long time. In the post WW2 years, the 50's and 60's, it is estimated that a third of new houses built in Australia used Fibro somewhere.

Asbestos fibro house in Darwin built 1965
A 1960's elevated house with Fibro external cladding.

Here is a less than classic old Darwin house, that I worked on in 1965 (I did the second fix). It was obviously re clad with Fibro after cyclone Tracy (1974). This and other photos taken May 2007.

FAC was cheap, easy to use and maintenance free. Look at the house above, the external walls have never been painted. That's nearly 40 years. Why wouldn't you use it?

Well I don't think there would be many people considering using it after all the publicity with the various Asbestosis claims against James Hardie and Co.

free asbestos fibres on surface of roof flashing
Free fibres ready to blow away.

Another shot of the same roof. The coating of cement has just about weathered off in a lot of places, and the fibres are free to blow away.

Only cement sheet products made before 1987 contain the deadly stuff. In NSW, for example, the use of it was discontinued in cement sheets by 1982, in corrugated sheets by 1984 and in all other products by 1986. Products containing it have been totally banned in Australia since 2004.

But, that means there are still a lot of houses out there that contain it.

Here is a US site, with more information on asbestos and air quality, public health issues that I found interesting.

If you happen to live in Sydney and are looking for a contractor to remove and replace you old corrugated FAC roof, check out Lidoran Roofing.

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Asbestos - Disclaimer.

This is a highly complex and stringently regulated field.   I am not a scientist, I am not a government spokesperson or anyone with any authority to talk or give professional advice on the subject in your area.

What I am is a retired builder with a large amount of practical experience fixing fibrous asbestos cement products and then later removing them.

In 1995 I was issued an asbestos removal licence (43133) by the Northern Territory Work Health Authority, and did many asbestos removal jobs, complying with Australian Work Health (OH&S) Regulations and the NOHSC National Code Of Practice For The Safe Removal Of Asbestos.

I hope you get something of value out of these pages, but a word of caution, at the last count I get visitors from 132 different countries, there is no way that I can give specific advice that would comply with the regulations in your country, state, district or local area.

In other words, the onus is on YOU to check out the regulations where you live, and comply with them.   If you have any doubts get advice from a licensed person IN YOUR AREA.



Please Note! The information on this site is offered as a guide only!  When we are talking about areas where building regulations or safety regulations could exist,the information here could be wrong for your area.  It could be out of date!  Regulations breed faster than rabbits!
You must check your own local conditions.
Copyright © Bill Bradley 2007-2012. All rights reserved.
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