The aftermath of bushfires and asbestos

Many states and territories in Australia have already been ravaged by bushfires in 2014, and it looks as if we're not out of the woods yet.

The International Business Times reveals that New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia are looking at another "scorching heat wave" over the next few days, with temperatures forecast to reach up to 45 degrees Celsius.

Western Australia is expected to get its share of the heat wave by Friday (January 31). However, what's really concerning fire authorities are the high winds that are heading for South Australia – high winds that could lead to bushfires.

In fact, the state's Country Fire Service issued a warning on Thursday (January 30), stating a bushfire was already in progress at Bangor in the Southern Flinders Ranges. The warning encouraged residents and members of the public in surrounding areas to "remain vigilant" and make sure they had an up-to-date bushfire survival plan at the ready.

The Country Fire Service also claims that "leaving early is the safest option," but is adamant that residents should only leave their properties "if the path is clear to a safe place". And, as always, you should call 000 if you see a bushfire.

These are all steps you and your family should take before a bushfire strikes – but what about afterwards? If your property is damaged or destroyed by a bushfire, you will also need a plan for managing the clean-up process.

You may think that once the bushfire has been and gone, so has the danger. However, if your fire-damaged property happens to be contaminated by asbestos, you could still be at risk.

What are the facts about asbestos?

Basically, if your property was constructed prior to the mid-1980s, there's a good chance it contains asbestos. As you're probably aware, this fibre was commonly used in building and renovation projects up until this point in time, when its detrimental effect on people's health was discovered.

While left to its own devices, asbestos is relatively harmless, once its fibres become airborne and are able to be inhaled, it can become deadly.

Those who have been exposed to asbestos during their lives can develop a number of conditions – many of them currently with cure. These include asbestosis (the scarring of the lungs), lung cancer and mesothelioma (a cancer which affects the lining of the lungs).

This final cancer grows very quickly, reveals the National Health and Medical Research Council, and often spreads throughout the body before symptoms begin to appear.

It typically takes between 20 and 40 years for the condition to present itself, and the more often you're exposed to asbestos, the higher your chances of falling ill.

During a bushfire, asbestos-containing materials can be wrecked and release deadly asbestos fibres into the air. These may therefore be present when you return to your fire-damaged property and put your health at risk.

How do you conduct a safe clean-up?

To begin, it should be noted the Department of Health claims that concentrations of asbestos fibres in the air are generally quite low both during and after bushfires – however, they are still there.

The organisation recommends that any "large disturbances" such as might occur during the clean-up process or when a fire-damaged property is demolished "must be done safely to ensure the
level of asbestos fibres in the air is kept very low".

So, how do you achieve this?

If you think your property could be contaminated by asbestos, your best move is to avoid entering it and call in a licensed asbestos removalist. This is someone who has undergone the necessary asbestos removal training and is qualified to rid your property of this deadly substance safely.

If you're interested in enrolling in asbestos removal training, you may want to get in touch with AlertForce to find out what course options are available.

We offer everything from general awareness training, which can be completed online and provide you with a good overview of the risks associated with asbestos, to nationally recognised qualifications in asbestos removal.

Whether you want a certificate in removing non-friable asbestos (Class B), removing friable asbestos (Class A), supervising asbestos removal or conducting asbestos assessments, you can study toward one with AlertForce.

In addition to the proper asbestos removal training, here are a few other things you may want to keep in mind during the clean-up process.

- The Better Health Channel recommends wetting all dust on site. This can be done using a spray dispenser (for small areas) or a hose (for large areas).

- Where possible, avoid mixing asbestos-contaminated materials with all other debris on site. If you're not sure which materials have been exposed to asbestos, make sure all debris is disposed of as if it's been contaminated.

-  Ensure adequate warning signs are set up around the site to discourage passers-by from entering and putting themselves at risk.

Your neighbours should also be advised to close their doors and windows and remain inside while the clean-up is in progress, to avoid unnecessary exposure to asbestos fibres.

- The required personal protective equipment (PPE) should be worn by anyone working with asbestos-contaminated materials at all times. This may include a dust mask or suitable respirator, as well as disposable coveralls.

All such clothing should be disposed of as asbestos waste at the end of the clean-up, states the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water.