Do-it-yourself jobs on flood-damaged homes could expose asbestos and endanger residents, volunteers and tradespeople

Do-it-yourself attempts to clean and repair flood-damaged buildings could expose residents, volunteers and tradespeople to toxic asbestos fibers.

Read this story here in te reo Māori and English. / Pānuitia tēnei i te reo Māori me te reo Pākehā ki konei.

Insurers are processing nearly 45,000 claims for homes damaged by January’s Auckland floods and Cyclone Gabrielle, sending surveyors to inspect properties for asbestos, which must be removed by licensed professionals.

However, asbestos removal companies say they are already seeing cases of homeowners attempting to perform work where surrounding areas could be contaminated with asbestos fibers from textured ceilings, old linoleum or vinyl floors and siding.

Jason Catterall, Morecroft’s director of hazardous materials, would like to see more public health warnings on the issue, especially as ceilings that have collapsed in flooded homes could result in tons of silt beneath being contaminated.

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Appraisers inspect damaged homes to determine if they contain asbestos, which may need to be removed as part of the repair process. (file photo)

Asbestos waste needs to be double bagged and taken to authorized disposal sites, but Catterall says that could be a challenge when it comes to silt.

“How do you pack 20 tons of wet sand?”

Class A friable asbestos, which crumbles easily, is more dangerous as inhaling the microscopic fibers can cause lung cancer. Therefore, the workplaces are cordoned off and the workers wear tight-fitting face masks and protective suits.

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Class B non-friable asbestos is considered less hazardous because the fibers are bound into products and removal of up to 10m² does not require a licensed operator.

Asbestos regulations do not apply to homeowners (other than landlords) who perform DIY work on their properties, but WorkSafe recommends they use licensed professionals due to the health risks involved and has issued advice on how to deal with asbestos during the Cyclone Gabrielle cleanup.

Bejon Haswell/Stuff

Once asbestos has been removed, it must be carefully packaged and disposed of at designated landfills. (file photo)

Contaminated Site Solutions director Victor Boyd says caution is still needed with non-friable materials such as fiber cement board and was shocked to see a construction worker attack the base plate of a damaged house with a claw hammer.

“Once you start smashing it, you start making Class A [asbestos].”

Homeowners removing flood-damaged floors may find hardboard on top of old linoleum and remove both layers, unaware that vinyl backing or vinyl tile can contain asbestos, which can be quite friable.

“You don’t put two and two together and think, why was this covered up? They rip it open and throw it in bins, no protection, no nothing.”

Flood water reached ceiling level in many places, and Boyd says wet textured ceilings break up into clumps that are then washed outside as the water recedes.

“It’s on the ground and people can’t tell it from Gib dust because Gib boards fall apart too.”

Robert Barton, vice president of the Demolition and Asbestos Association, estimates that between 15% and 30% of damaged homes will contain asbestos, meaning there may be thousands to remove, and ACM Removals, the company he runs, does generated more than 120 bids in three weeks for refurbishment work in Auckland.

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Commercial companies that remove asbestos are subject to strict controls, but homeowners are not regulated if they carry out the removal work on their own properties.

Insurer Suncorp, which owns Vero and has a majority stake in AA Insurance, says testing 302 properties damaged by floods and hurricanes has found asbestos in 42 and will cost anywhere from $2,000 to $50,000 to remove.

Catterall worries people will take the home improvement route when they’re tired of waiting for contractors to do the job or don’t have insurance, and his staff had met with four or five Hawkes Bay homeowners who are there is a lack of coverage for asbestos remediation.

“When we give them a price for it, their eyes widen and they say, ‘We’ll call you.’

“We get asked if I can remove it myself and ultimately they can, but if it’s brittle they have to bring in a licensed contractor to properly remove it and I’m not sure they will.” “

“They get some buddies to help and suddenly everyone’s exposed [to asbestos].”


Some versions of mastic or bitumen-based pressed metal roofing tiles manufactured before the early 1980’s contain asbestos.

Professor Terri-Ann Berry, director of Unitec’s Environmental Solutions Research Center, who also co-founded the Mesothelioma Support and Asbestos Awareness Trust, advises people to “check before you hack.”

Do-it-yourself sampling kits, including a link to an instructional video, can be purchased online for about $90 if homeowners want to collect asbestos samples themselves and ship them off for testing.

Berry says the kits meet WorkSafe guidelines regarding the included P2 mask, but personally she would feel “incredibly uncomfortable” taking samples in her home if she were to release any brittle material into the air. “I would hate to put my family at risk.”

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Parul Sood, Auckland Council’s general manager Waste Solutions, says any structure built before the year 2000 is likely to contain materials containing asbestos, which could pose a major threat if disturbed or exposed by storm damage.

She advises homeowners to seek professional advice before removing and disposing of asbestos and warns that Auckland transfer stations do not accept asbestos.

“In addition, Auckland Council staff and contractors will not collect any items they suspect contain asbestos, including items provided for inorganic matter collection.”

WasteMINZ, which represents landfill, waste management and recycling operators, says silt containing large amounts of construction waste should be handled with care.

“Asbestos fibers may have been released in the larger areas damaged by flooding, but these are likely to be mixed with the silt and pose no additional risk unless there is obvious evidence of building materials.”