Editorial: Quake's silver lining

One of the unexpected benefits of destruction wrought by the earthquakes is that when all the rebuilds and repairs are done, Christchurch and surrounding areas will have one of the safest housing stocks in the country.

A prime example of this is shown in the Earthquake Commission's policy on the containment or removal of asbestos material that many houses still contain.

The Canterbury District Health Board's medical officer of health, Alistair Humphrey, has criticised the EQC policy, saying it risks creating a health "landmine".

That may be unnecessarily alarmist. While asbestos must be treated with care, the risks and benefits must be balanced sensibly.

Until about 20 years ago, asbestos was commonly used in the construction of all sorts of buildings. After authorities became aware of the serious risk to health that prolonged exposure to asbestos particles can cause, its use was banned. Whenever the opportunity arose, it was also removed from buildings that had it.

There are still, however, many buildings that have it in some form or other. EQC estimates that 43,000 Christchurch homes due for earthquake repairs could contain it. In about 10 per cent of those cases, EQC is choosing to have asbestos in ceilings "encased" behind plasterboard rather than removed. That is being done only where the asbestos is not damaged or deteriorating. Where it is crumbling it is removed.

In all cases, whenever asbestos is found, homeowners are told of the steps taken. According to EQC, the encasement policy follows the relevant national health guidelines and is the recommended practice of Canterbury Public Health, the Canterbury District Health Board entity responsible for promoting public health.

According to Humphrey, that policy is not adequate. Homeowners could conceal the existence of the asbestos to any subsequent buyers and it will leave a serious health risk. He believes all the asbestos should be removed.

Humphrey may be overstating the possible future dangers. Asbestos is only a hazard to health if it is released as particles small enough to enter the lungs. Even then, health experts say it is a danger only if a person is exposed to high levels of the material over a long period.

While it is possible to imagine scenarios where this could come about from asbestos left safely encased in houses, the risk is vanishingly small. The asbestos has, after all, already been in those properties for many years without creating any epidemic of the ill effects that it can cause. Moreover, the risk of leaving it is probably far outweighed by the risk to the health of repair people that would be incurred if all the undamaged asbestos had to be removed rather than encased.

At the moment it is not necessary to record the presence of asbestos in a house on the property's city council land information memorandum and there is no real reason to change that requirement now.

Buyers should be informed enough to know to ask about it or check for it. And property sellers will know if asbestos is present and would be obliged to disclose that information to any potential buyer who asked about it.

Owners could, of course, lie about it but to do so would expose them to legal liability. Property agents, too, could also face legal risks if any seller for whom they were acting attempted to deal misleadingly with a property.

The Press