When you mention the term asbestos most people think about sheeting, but the truth is asbestos was used in hundreds of different products, many not well known to the general public. Asbestos products fall into two main categories. Non friable, including products like sheeting and roofing and friable, which includes products like loose fill insulation, pipe lagging and vermiculite ceilings. While loose fill insulation has created many headlines especially in Canberra [Mr Fluffy]. Vermiculite ceilings and walls which can contain asbestos have also been used on a very large scale.
Vermiculite ceilings and walls are generally found in commercial buildings, unit blocks and dwellings constructed up until the 1980,s. In essence, it’s a spray-on textured finish which was generally painted over, but it’s also not unusual to find area’s including ceilings inside units that have not been sealed or tested.
Unlike sheeting, textured finishes are soft to touch [friable] and it’s very easy to dislodge particles. An unsuspecting unit owner, a tenant moving furniture, or a cleaning contractor dusting off cobwebs could all potentially expose themselves.
It’s always dangerous to generalise, but it’s well documented that unlike sheeting which often contains very low percentages of asbestos, vermiculites can often contain very high levels of asbestos.
Unfortunately vermiculite finishes aren’t the only asbestos dangers found inside units and houses. Some decorative finishes used around the same period also contained asbestos. These surfaces are much less common than vermiculite and have a trowelled-on finish as shown in the photo labelled decorative finish below. Once again the friable nature of this product makes it easy to dislodge. A recent asbestos report led to a number of positive dust samples being taken inside a unit complex of this nature; fortunately air monitoring was within acceptable levels. Even so the owner’s corporation made the difficult but prudent decision to vacate the units while remediation actions were evaluated.
While any asbestos based product poses an extremely high risk in an enclosed area, it’s important to be aware of external renders and finishes that can also contain asbestos. Below are photos of the external finishes on a residence and unit block that both returned positive samples.
Overall the message is simple; if you’re not sure get it tested by a qualified professional. Many asbestos audits on unit complexes only do common areas, and never look inside a unit at ceilings. Perhaps the interests of all unit owners would be better served if audits included at least one unit internal, if not more.