Asbestos and Fire Damaged Buildings
Particularly through the dry summer months, bushfires pose a risk to communities likely to have high levels of asbestos in buildings in these areas. Examples are beach houses, 'sea-shacks', holiday houses, farm houses, tractor sheds, etc.
The reasons can be for the durability of asbestos in low-maintenance, low-cost and aged building construction often found in seaside towns and rural communities.
The durability of asbestos is precisely why it presents an extreme hazard after decades or more of being installed.
The ubiquitous usage of asbestos-based materials means that it exists in large quantities in these areas.
Asbestos-containing materials such as asbestos cement sheeting, (typically called AC sheeting or 'fibro') exist in a condition known as non-friable. This simply means it's bonded into a non-crushable 'hard' state. In good condition and properly maintained, non-friable material is 'relatively' safe. Therefore, it's usage in construction such as the eaves of a house is considered to be an acceptable hazard.
It becomes a greater hazard and higher risk as it weathers or is damaged through wear and tear. Therefore, corrugated cement roofing as it weathers, becomes mouldy and damaged by external factors such as hail makes it a very hazardous material. Similarly for corrugated cement panels used for fences. Because of its brittle characteristics, asbestos cement sheeting can be cracked by the kids kicking the footy, bumping it with the wheelbarrow while gardening and so forth.
Furthermore, sheeting can come loose when the nails holding it up rust and the sheet falls or swings out.
Asbestos that can be crushed or blown about is termed 'friable' and presents an extreme hazard and risk.
The terms hazard and risk do mean different things.
Hazard refers to the potential danger of a material or situation to harm a person.
Risk is the potential for the hazard to be presented to a person.
For example, a ladder lying on the floor is a hazard of low risk (if it's away from people), the same ladder lying across a walkway is a high risk.
What happens in a bushfire?
In high heat such as a fire, the cement material disintegrates to a crumbly, friable 'ash'. The asbestos bonded in materials such as AC sheeting is now not bonded but rather, free to blow around and this is what is found in bushfire-affected areas. Furthermore, the high winds generated by a fire means the deadly dust is dispersed over a wide area and presents a high risk.
Some research suggests that asbestos can be degraded to a less-harmful crystaline form and that air-quality monitoring shows a lower than expected level of free asbestos but the recommendation is to proceed with full caution.
What should you do in areas affected by bushfires?
Firstly, consider the whole broad area has a high risk factor. This means that even if your property wasn't affected, the ash and dust that's settled on your property is a probable risk.
If you feel the need to start searching through the property (as most people do), use some form of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). At the absolute minimum, you must use dust mask protection rated P1 or P2 level. The cheap dustmask from the local hardware store are NOT suitable.
You should wear at a minimum, hair covering. We recognise the 'spacesuits' recommended for proper asbestos removal are hot and difficult to work in during hot weather but your health is paramount. If you must work in these conditions and a spacesuit is not possible, wear a minimum of clothing such as simple shorts and T shirts and be prepared to dispose of those when you finish the work task (washing fabrics isn't effective in removing asbestos fibres).
Wash yourself often through the day, particularly head hair, eyebrows, beards.
Don't get in the car when you're dusty.
Don't drink from dusty cups or eat from dusty plates.