Asbestos in the Home: When was Asbestos Used in Homes?

August 1, 2022

Sebastian Tiller

Let’s start with some facts:

When was asbestos used in homes?

  • Asbestos was a popular building material in the 20th century due to its heat resistance.
  • If you’re in a building that was constructed prior to 1990, there’s a large chance it contains asbestos.
  • In Australia, 1 in 3 homes contain asbestos.
  • Asbestos sheeting and asbestos cement might be found in a wide range of products and places including:
    • cement roofing, gutters and downpipes
    • fencing
    • outbuildings like gardens sheds and kennels, the outdoor toilet
    • cladding for walls and ceilings
    • backing for tiles and kitchen splashbacks
    • underneath carpet or vinyl flooring
    • insulation in roofs and conduits
    • electrical meter boards
  • If asbestos containing material is broken, it releases asbestos fibres into the air that are dangerous when inhaled.

The Timeline of Asbestos in Australia (1920s-2010s)

Source: asbestossafety.gov.au

Now that we’re all aware of the dangers of asbestos, the question becomes “how did we get here”? Below is a timeline of significant events related to asbestos in Australia, including;

  • Asbestos mining in Australia
  • The legal action that took place
  • The ban of asbestos in the home

The 1920s

  • While asbestos mining has been a practice over the rest of the world since 1880, Australia imports and incorporates asbestos into building construction in the 1920s as a result of the post WWI housing boom.
  • Asbestos is also widely used in industries such as electronic insulation, brakes and clutch linings in the auto industry, pipes in water supply construction and even in the construction of power plants in areas such as Yallourn in the LaTrobe Valley.

The 1930s

  • Australia starts mining of asbestos, following the discovery of blue asbestos (crocidolite) in Wittenoom, Western Australia. Iron Ore magnate Lang Hancock starts a pick and shovel mine.
  • Inspector of Factories and Shops in Western Australia reports on the effect of asbestos dust on the lungs of workers in the James Hardie factory in Perth.
  • Western Australian Commissioner of Public Health and Chief Inspector of Factories find respiratory disorders among James Hardie workers.

The 1940s

  • Lang Hancock expands his mining operations in Wittenoom, opening an asbestos processing plant. By the end of the decade, mining company CSR takes over Hancock’s mining operations.
  • The Western Australian Assistant State Mining Engineer reports on the danger of dust being generated, emphasising the need for regulations to be put in place.
  • A second housing boom occurs post WWII, increasing the widespread use of asbestos in the construction of buildings, including homes.

The 1950s

  • The state of Western Australia adopts the dust limit of 176 particles per cubic centimetre.
  • The Western Australian Health Department investigates Wittenoom, discovering six cases of lung damage amongst workers.

The 1960s

  • The amount of lung disease cases amongst Wittenoom workers increases to over 100.
  • The local council warns that asbestos tailings from the Wittenoom mine could potentially threaten the surrounding populace.
  • CSR closes the Wittenoom mine in 1966.
  • D Jansen & Co P/L commences installing ‘asbestos fluff’ into roof spaces in many homes in Canberra, charging homeowners less than $100 to have loose-fill friable asbestos material pumped into their roof space as insulation. This goes on to become known as Mr Fluffy.

The 1970s

  • Building unions at workplaces across Australia commence industrial action to ban the use of asbestos.
  • The cases of lung damage at Wittenoom continue to grow to 175 (with 27 recorded deaths), despite the mine’s closure.
  • A magazine cover story, “Is this the killer in your home?”, serves as the first public warning of the dangers of blue asbestos.
  • Cornelius Maas becomes the first mesothelioma victim to sue the CSR subsidiary that ran the mine. He passes away before the case can go to court.
  • D. Jansen/Mr Fluffy ceases operation in Canberra and regional New South Wales.

The 1980s

  • The Wittenoom lung damage toll increases to 500.
  • Court victories occur for victims of asbestos-related ailments. The first is in Victoria, granting the asbestos-afflicted compensation. The other notable case was against CSR, lodged by multiple mesothelioma victims.
  • At the end of the decade, the Commonwealth and ACT governments undertake the first clean-up of ‘Mr Fluffy’ asbestos insulation from affected homes in the ACT.

The 1990s

  • The Australian Government enacts the National Environmental Protection Council Act 1994 allowing for National Environmental Protection Measures (NEPM) to be made.
  • The Asbestos Disease Foundation of Australia plays a major role in changing New South Wales’ laws regarding dust diseases.
  • The National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) full public report on chrysotile asbestos is published.

The 2000s

  • James Hardie, a global building materials company notorious for its use of asbestos in manufacturing, establishes the Medical Research and Compensation Foundation.
  • An Australia-wide ban on the manufacture and use of all types of asbestos and asbestos-containing materials (ACM) takes effect.
  • The Code of Practice for the Management and Control of Asbestos in Workplaces is developed by the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission (NOHSC).
  • Unions pressure James Hardie to compensate their workers. James Hardie responds by working with the NSW state government to provide $4.5 billion in funding for Australia’s asbestos victims.
  • New South Wales opens the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute in the Bernie Banton Centre

The 2010s

  • The NSW state government provides loans to asbestos victims and their families as a continued form of compensation.
  • The first Parliamentary Group on Asbestos Related Disease meeting takes place.
  • The federal government introduce the Workplace Health and Safety Act of 2011, which sets out a framework for the management of asbestos materials in workplaces including:
    • the training of all workers at risk of encountering asbestos during their work
    • naturally occurring asbestos
    • removal of asbestos
    • the licensing and competency requirements for asbestos removalists and assessors
  • The High Court of Australia finds seven Directors of the James Hardie group breached duties by approving misleading statements released to the Stock Exchange.
  • The Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency is established
  • The first international conference on Asbestos Safety takes place in Melbourne
  • Work commences on the demolition of over 1,000 houses in the ACT as part of the ACT Asbestos Taskforce strategy.
  • Development of the National Strategic Plan for Asbestos Management and Awareness 2019-2023 commences.

What should I do in the event of asbestos in the home?

It’s your responsibility to manage potential asbestos containing materials in your home. It is important that you take any measures to alleviate any potential asbestos risks in the event that you are going to renovate your home.

If you have any questions or safety concerns regarding asbestos in your home, it is important that you reach out to qualified professionals. Here is a list of available contacts Australia-wide, so you can easily find the help you need to manage any potential asbestos in the home.

Sebastian Tiller

Seb has a long history of delivering elegant solutions to complex business problems that conform to the most exacting compliance standards. He prides himself on his ability to connect with customers and humanise software solutions to be understandable and useful to all parties. He’s also enjoys playing story-based single player games and spending time with his young family, building LEGO, attending recitals, and experiencing new restaurants with his wife.

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