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Death sentence in a door

Look familiar? Hope not.

Look familiar? Hope not.

If you're the home handy type, you might be interested in a disturbing blog post I stumbled across this week about a not very well known risk posed by asbestos in doors in homes.

Transport engineer and blogger, David Caldwell, veers from the subject of his usual musings with a post titled Death Sentence in a Door recounting how he exposed himself to asbestos dust for more than an hour while drilling a new lock for an 1980s era door, the type of which I'm sure you've seen before (pictured).

Writes Caldwell:

Following the manufacturers guide, I chiselled a rebate for the lock face. So far, so good. All timber. I then drilled four adjacent 5/8" holes, each 4" deep with a speed bore, at eye level, ensuring the bore was true and square. Timber swarf and dust came issuing out. Everything looked normal. What I hadn't noticed, in the dimming afternoon light, was that the texture of the dust (still mixed with fragments of wood) had changed.

When I went to brush it off my shirt and sweep it out of the carpet I noticed some of the dust stuck into the pile. This was not wood dust. There was grey amongst the brown. I shone the light of my iPhone into my freshly bored mortice, and to my surprise I noticed the wood on the door's edge was only about one-and-a-half inches (35mm) deep, and the rest (60mm) was a whitish-grey gypsum-ish colour.

The worst immediately occurred to me. It was a door rated for fire against the Australian Standard. It was made in the 1980s. The dust I had been working with for the last hour, the dust in the air I breathed, on my shirt and in my carpet was probably asbestos.

A few minutes on Google confirmed the worst for Caldwell: Thousands of apartments in Australia were systematically fitted with asbestos-filled doors in the period 1960-1990.

The next day he took a sample of the material from his door to a lab for testing and they confirmed asbestos was present: "Both white and the more dangerous grey asbestos," writes Caldwell.

Reading his posts, Caldwell does not strike me as the excitable type. He's a transportation and logistics analyst and engineer, as well as an IT entrepreneur. He's also worked with asbestos before.

"I have always been particularly careful to protect myself from asbestos dust. I've even lectured builders on the subject. Cladding, concealed walls, vinyl tiles, appliance electrical wiring, old clutch pads and brake shoes. All of these I knew of."

Asbestos doors? He had not. And neither have I.

"After years of wearing dust masks to drill a hole in fibro, while containing swarf with a wet rag, I realised I had just exposed myself to more asbestos than I had encountered in my whole life in controlled situations," writes Caldwell.

Soberingly, the risks of drilling into doors like this has been documented as recently as 2010 by SafeWork Australia, with people working on asbestos-cored doors exposed to up to 10 times the asbestos arising from other typical sources of asbestos dust.

According to a table published by our own Attorney General's Department, drilling into these doors can be almost twice as dangerous as doing asbestos clean-up work on a building site.

The problem is these doors are not marked or labelled in any way to show they contain asbestos, so when tradesmen or house owners work on them, they're not taking the precautions you'd expect.

Kneeling down, drilling at eye level, through a thin skin of wood, the opportunity for inhaling dust is almost custom-made.

I know I've encountered the type of door pictured above hundreds of times in my life and I've worked on building sites where we've torn these suckers out. It makes me wonder.

As Caldwell points out: "There is no safe level of asbestos exposure, 35 per cent of people who die of mesothelioma cannot recall ever having been exposed to asbestos.

"The risk that doors present greatly exceeds that of most other asbestos products, and yet awareness of asbestos in doors is low."

Caldwell told me he's contacted both the Federal and Shadow Ministers for Health about the issue but had no response.

If you'd like to read Caldwell's entire post, go here.

In the meantime, it's something to keep in mind if you're doing any handywork this weekend.

You can follow Sam on Twitter here. His email address is here.

33 comments so far

  • Jesus. H. Christ. Thank you.

    Commenter
    Shelby
    Date and time
    April 10, 2013, 3:31PM
    • Want to know what's even scarier? When you have a tradie with a vacuum cleaner that is not rated for asbestos doing the post work cleanup. Assuming asbestos is involved, if they're using a cheap sub $200 vac, you get fibers blown all over the place. Or when people hire a vac for post work cleanup and don't realise that the previous hirer has done something naughty with the vac. So you may not even have asbestos fibers generated as part of the job you are doing, but the vac has now introduced fibers into your workspace.

      Simple rule of thumb:

      H class vacs (vacuum cleaners with a big sticker with the letter H on them) are the only ones legally rated for asbestos cleanup (they can filter down to several microns - i.e. capture about 99.997% of dust). However, they need to be certified as such and serviced by people with appropriate safeguards in place for filter changing/servicing etc, otherwise you may as well have been running a cheapie. This can happen is an instance as simple as the tradie changing the filter themselves and not noticing that the filter has not seated properly, or the exterior of the vac has become contaminated.

      Down side? If you don't mind paying $1000 - $3,500 for a vacuum cleaner, there are none. To Red Horse below, that's one area the government could help subsidise - but its all about the money, isn't it? Also, just try to find a government accredited service center... what's that? There are none? Oh well, here's to mesothelioma!

      Commenter
      Malik the magic sheep
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 11, 2013, 8:05AM
  • So the government knows and isn't doing anything... why?

    Commenter
    RedHorse
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    April 10, 2013, 6:28PM
    • And just what Red Horse, do you propose the government do? Inspect every household in Australia for asbestos? After the investigation maybe we could replace every piece of asbestos in Australia because removing and destroying the asbestos isn’t dangerous at all is it……

      Are you comfortable with paying additional tax to fund whatever the government does? If you do not want to pay additional tax then where should the funds come from? Which service should we cut?

      Your attitude is a disgrace.

      Here’s an idea mate. Why don’t you read the article again…. And then again…. And then read it a few more times. When you’ve done that…. And this will be the difficult part for you Red Horse -actually use your brain. Avoid putting yourself in a dangerous situation. Advise any contractors that you engage of the potential for harm.

      I’m reasonably sure that Sam wrote this article to inform. Not for some hugely irresponsible person to expect the government to protect them against a manageable situation.

      Commenter
      Nyd
      Date and time
      April 11, 2013, 10:15AM
  • Older Australian homes are full of asbestos, the stuff is everywhere, not just in doors or indoors, it`s outdoors as well. As long as it is undisturbed then fine, but you start doing some DIY renovational cutting and drilling, the particles become airborne and it`s asbestosis roullette.

    In my workplace there is some asbestos, not much, but we get professional asbestos guys in to investigate, analyse, safely remove what can be removed and label what can`t so that some poor bugger doesn`t inadvertently drill into it. I`m guessing this is a common practice in Australian workplaces ? So why isn`t this done in Australian homes built between about say 1950 and 1990 ????

    Commenter
    Pat
    Location
    Nagasaki
    Date and time
    April 10, 2013, 8:09PM
    • It's called money. Also, when you have people like this:

      http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/the-serial-dumper-with-60-years-of-fines-to-pay-off-20130404-2h9eu.html

      getting off virtually scot free, is is really that surprising that death by asbestos is such a low national priority?

      Commenter
      Malik the magic sheep
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 11, 2013, 7:45AM
    • I notice the most obvious source of asbestos, old asbestos sheeted roofs, are still everywhere. Can someone tell me what risk these pose to humans ? Surely these roofs are shedding dust and fibres as they decay with age, and blow far and wide ready for human inhalation. Am I correct or am I missing something ? If this is in fact what is occurring, then the Govt. are covering up one massive health problem by just turning a blind eye to it. Unacceptable.

      Commenter
      The Oracle
      Location
      Oberon
      Date and time
      April 11, 2013, 7:59AM
  • It's good to be aware of health risks but I wouldn't panic about a one-off situation - or even occasional exposure to asbestos in a lifetime. You'd have to be really unlucky to develop serious health problems from short-term exposure to asbestos.

    I don't pretend to have any medical knowledge on the subject - I'm just going by what I've experienced. I've had friends who were in the Navy who were exposed to asbestos due to working in confined areas of the engine room on Navy ships. Sadly many of these men have died of asbestosis but they had constant exposure in a very confided environment.

    I grew up in a suburb of Sydney in the 1950s surrounded by new Fibro homes. My siblings and I played amongst asbestos sheets left around on building sites (including making cubby houses out of asbestos sheets). My father did some renovating on our home in the 1960s and actually drilled into asbestos without the protection of a face mask. He lived to a ripe old age. My siblings and I also remain in good health - as would millions of other Australians who grew up in homes with asbestos.

    I would hate anyone to be unduly alarmed by an incidence of asbestos exposure. The link below is from an SMH articled titled "Deadly fibres likely to lurk in us all - but health risk is low". Admittedly it was written almost 10 years ago but the advice still stands.

    http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/11/01/1099262791376.html?from=storylhs
    .

    Commenter
    Elizabeth
    Date and time
    April 10, 2013, 8:22PM
    • Tell that to my cousin who is dying from mesothelioma.
      Had a test lately?
      Your post is reprehensible and I'm surprised it passed the moderator.
      Asbestos is deadly.

      Commenter
      Yeh right
      Date and time
      April 11, 2013, 12:09AM
    • True. There is too much panic about short term minor exposure to fibro/asbestos.

      Commenter
      rudy
      Date and time
      April 11, 2013, 5:08AM

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