Health risks: Asbestos

Asbestos can cause cancer and other serious diseases years after exposure. While it was not typically used in Victorian/Edwardian villas, it may be present if any renovation or extension was done from the 1920s to the mid-1980s. During that period, asbestos was used in some wall and roof claddings, vinyl floor coverings, sprayed fire protection, decorative ceilings, roofing membranes, and adhesives and paints. Some work with asbestos is restricted, and Worksafe must be notified before it is carried out.

Health risks arise when old materials containing asbestos are damaged or are being removed or broken up, allowing the fine particles to become airborne and breathed in. Asbestos in the soil can also be a risk. This can come from, for example: 

  • where waste products containing asbestos were used as fill (up to the 1970s)
  • where materials containing asbestos were dumped
  • where buildings with asbestos materials were demolished and some waste left in the ground 
  • where rainfall over many decades, or high-pressure waterblasting on a wall or roof cladding, has led to asbestos fibres landing in the soil.

Asbestos can cause asbestosis (lung disease) and lung cancer, but the danger is often underestimated because symptoms often do not appear until 15–20 years after exposure.


If you suspect asbestos may be present, the following laboratories can test the material: 

For cladding or flooring, a sample approximately the size of a $2 coin is required. For decorative ceiling finishes, a minimum of one teaspoonful is required, and this should include any sparkly material. Samples should be obtained in accordance the Approved Code of Practice for the Management and Removal of Asbestos

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Working with asbestos

Restricted work

The Health and Safety at Work (Asbestos) Regulations (2016) regulate working with asbestos. They set out the new rules around the removal of asbestos, and the circumstances where WorkSafe must be notified.

Licence system for asbestos removal

Three types of licence are available for asbestos removal: Class A (where the biggest risk to health exists), Class B, and an asbestos assessor licence. An asbestos assessor inspects the finished job for Class A removal, provides a clearance certificate, and can also carry out air quality monitoring during removal if required. 

You can find asbestos licence holders on the register here.

No licence is required for asbestos removal:

  • up to and including 10 m2 of non-friable asbestos or asbestos-containing material (ACM), cumulatively, over the whole course of the removal project for the site
  • asbestos-contaminated dust or debris (ACD) that is associated with removing 10 m2 or less of non-friable asbestos or ACM and any associated minor ACD.

The Class A and Class B removal licences are held by a business, rather than a person. The asbestos assessor licence is held by a person. 

More details can be found at this WorkSafe page.

Other work with asbestos

Even when work with asbestos is not defined as restricted work, it must nevertheless be carried out with care. If products containing asbestos are in sound condition and left alone, they do not pose a major risk. Do not use power saws or sanders or similar tools on materials containing asbestos, as this can release the fibres into the air. 

When working with asbestos:

  • seal off the work area to minimise exposure to others 
  • wear disposable overalls and cap 
  • use a half-facepiece respirator with a class P1 filter suitable for asbestos dust 
  • keep asbestos-based material damp while handling it 
  • clean up at the completion of each day’s work.

Do not:

  • waterblast the asbestos-based material
  • break sheets or drop them, causing them to break.

Cleaning up

  • Collect residue from the washing or other work with asbestos while it is still wet and bag in plastic or a closed container. 
  • Clearly mark bags/containers ‘Asbestos Hazard – wear respirator and protective clothing while handling the contents’. 
  • Dispose of asbestos at a place approved by the local authority and cover immediately with at least 1 m of earth. 
  • Vacuum residue and dust from all surfaces (including unsealed drawers and cupboards) using a vacuum cleaner fitted with a HEPA filter. 
  • Wet mop after vacuuming.