Asbestos toxins make DIY risky

Kiwis dabbling in "do-it-yourself" house repairs may be exposing themselves to toxins, with a study showing an increase in asbestos-related diseases among home renovators.

Canterbury medical officer of Health Dr Alistair Humphrey said an Australian study showed an increase in the number of people suffering asbestos-related diseases after exposure to it during home maintenance and renovation.

"I think it is something we will see more of worldwide and we certainly are likely to see it in New Zealand. The pattern is likely to be replicated everywhere."

Asbestos, a known carcinogen, can cause mesothelioma, a rare fatal cancer of the lining of lungs or abdominal cavity, lung cancer, asbestosis or scarring of lung tissue, and pleural plaques.

The study, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, looked at 1631 cases of malignant mesothelioma in Western Australia between 1960 and December 2008.

It found for both men and women, home renovators accounted for the largest proportion of all non-occupational cases, with 8.4 per cent of malignant mesothelioma cases in men and 35.7 per cent of cases in women between 2005 and 2008 attributed to home renovation.

Humphrey said tradespeople knew how to deal with asbestos, unlike the average person.

The worry was asbestos was being covered up or becoming airborne when people cut into it without realising what it was, he said.

"A baby might crawl around in it for a few months and that would be chronic exposure to that child and that's a potential cause [of an asbestos-related disease]."

University of Otago associate professor David McBride, who specialises in occupation and environmental medicine, said asbestos was common in homes, particularly those built before the mid-1980s.

He agreed home renovators were likely to be the "next wave" in asbestos-related diseases, particularly as people became more interested in renovation as shown by the increased amount of reality televisions about it.

"People shouldn't work with it [asbestos] themselves but we can't stop them. But, you need high grade respiratory protection."

Fireplaces, ceilings, roofs and linoleum were areas where asbestos could be found.

If someone came across white material or anything unidentifiable they should immediately get it checked by a professional.

McBride said there was debate as to how long someone had to be exposed to it for it to be harmful.

The study found some renovation activities, particularly those involving power tools, could produce short-term, high concentrations of asbestos fibres.

Major renovations might increase background fibre concentrations in the medium term, contributing to increased cumulative exposure.

However, in most instances in the study, exposure was limited to a single task, which may have lasted for only a few days.

Humphrey said reality shows, such as The Block, were a great way of educating people about safety but they also encouraged people to partake in these activities.

The Press