What is asbestos? Why do asbestos sheets need to be removed?

Asbestos is almost everywhere, but in single-family housing it is most often found in the form of roofing. Can asbestos, the raw material that was once used to make corrugated cement fibre sheets, pose a threat to human health? Many people still do not fully believe that it is harmful. This is a mistake.

Harmfulness of asbestos

Each old fibre cement board (once called eternit) contained between 11 and 13% carcinogenic asbestos. Unprotected slabs are harmful, even if they are just lying on the roof. Rain washes away the cement binder, exposing the asbestos fibre bundles, splitting them and releasing them into the environment. The more damaged the roof is, the more fibres escape. They become particularly dangerous when removing old asbestos tiles from the roof, which break and crumble. Asbestos fibres remain invisible to the human eye – they are four times thinner than a hair.

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Harmful asbestos: not just roofing

Asbestos-covered roofs are a sad legacy of the 1960s and 1970s. As long and wide as Australia is, the landscape is spoilt by corrugated, grey, now often dirty, mossy or chipped sheets on the roofs of houses, outbuildings, garages, etc. At that time, asbestos was used not only for roofing, but also for façade cladding, pipes, ventilation and flue gas ducts and other items. A complete inventory of buildings in which asbestos was used has not yet been drawn up. However, it is estimated that some 15.5 million tonnes of products contain it. Roofing alone accounts for around 1.5 billion m2. Half of the existing asbestos was used in private housing. The highest accumulation is in the state of New South Wales, the lowest in the Northern Territory.

Asbestos products: popular because cheap

Asbestos products were widely used because they were cheap, durable, resistant to heat and frost, and above all, resistant to fire and corrosion. We also receive a lot of asbestos from abroad. Asbestos was recognised as harmful in Europe much earlier (in Australia, production was stopped only in 2003), and strict regulations were introduced banning its use. For many foreign factories, Australia then became a market for accumulated stocks that they could no longer sell at home. Roofing sheets were four to five times cheaper than those without asbestos. Such an attractive price was an effective counterbalance to the knowledge about the harmfulness of asbestos. As if asbestos coverings were not enough, our environment is additionally contaminated by asbestos dust from wild dumps – especially in forests and open pits. Everyday life and children play on waste containing asbestos, as roads and squares were paved with it.

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Removing asbestos – from production and from roofs

As the problem is serious, in 1998 the Minister of Economy issued a regulation on how to safely use and remove products containing asbestos. In the same year, the production of corrugated asbestos sheets was terminated, and in March 2003 a ban on the marketing of these sheets was introduced. An Australia-wide asbestos removal programme was also adopted in 2004. According to it, however, this will continue for the next 30 years, and possibly longer.

Each municipality, county or district (powiat) was obliged, by the ordinance of the Minister of Economy, to draw up an inventory of buildings containing asbestos-based materials, together with an assessment of their technical condition and, consequently, an estimate of the time in which they must be removed. Reports on these inventories must be submitted annually to the provinces. If there is visible surface damage to products containing asbestos, the manager or user should remove such products as a matter of priority.

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Problems with asbestos sheet disposal

The mass media return quite often to the subject of healthy materials, and environmental awareness is growing. In theory, everyone already knows that asbestos is carcinogenic. However, not much still comes of it. If you drive through the Australian countryside, you can see whole swathes of old, unprotected asbestos roofs, often crumbled and scratched. And the more damaged the asbestos on a roof, the greater the likelihood of toxic dust.

Removing asbestos-containing materials is difficult because of finances – owners often simply don’t have the money to replace the old roof covering. Some municipalities subsidise this. It is therefore worth finding out about it and filling in an application form.

Waste disposal is also a problem. Local landfills for asbestos-containing waste have not yet been developed. There are still not enough of them (apart from private landfill sites).

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