In recent years, asbestos has been a prominent subject in Australia. It's a common feature in the media, with barely a newspaper released without mentioning this deadly fibre.

Engineering firm under fire for breaching asbestos ban

On January 1, for example, the Newcastle Herald published an article on well-known engineering firm, which is currently "under fire" for allowing heavy-rail locomotives containing asbestos to travel from China to Australia.

The story goes that the engineering firm purchased the two heavy-rail locomotives from a manufacturer in China, who certified them as free of asbestos.

However, Michael Borowick – assistant secretary of Australian Customs and Border Protection informed the Newcastle Herald that such certifications are often "not worth the paper they were printed on".

He added that importers – in this case, the engineering firm – are responsible for the making sure any goods they purchase overseas are well-and-truly asbestos free. The engineering firm is now looking at a fine of up to $850,000.

Many people are well-informed about the dangers of asbestos, but – due to articles such as the one above – regard it as a news-worthy topic that has little or nothing to do with them.

However, they are wrong.

WA man falls through asbestos roof

Take, for instance, an article published by WA Today article on January 3, which revealed a man had fallen through an asbestos roof after tumbling off a scaffold.

WA Today stated it was unable to determine whether the man was a construction worker or merely a DIYer performing some renovations on his own house.

A spokesman for the Department of Fire and Emergency Services, who attended the scene on Andrews Place in Cottesloe, told WA Today the man had been taken down from the asbestos roof and hosed down (in order to remove any lingering asbestos dust).

The area has since been cordoned off to prevent the public from accidentally coming into contact with this dangerous substance.

This just goes to show that anyone can be exposed to asbestos at any time.

What are the risks for DIY renovators?

According to Dr Yates of St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney, a shocking 61 per cent of DIYers have been exposed to asbestos at some point in their lives.

Her research, which can be found in the Medical Journal of Australia, also shows that only 12 per cent of the DIY renovators who took part in the study were using the correct respiratory protection when working with asbestos-containing materials.

– Do you know if your home is contaminated by asbestos?

One of the most dangerous aspects of asbestos is the vast majority of homeowners do not realise their property is contaminated by it.

Asbestos Awareness reveals that approximately one in three homes around the country contains at least some asbestos. It was a prominent building material before the mid-1980s and used widely in the construction of new homes and during renovation projects.

You often can't tell whether building materials or other aspects of your home contain asbestos just by looking at them. When left untouched and undamaged, asbestos-containing materials are relatively harmless.

However, as soon as you cut, drill, saw, sand, dismantle, scrub or water blast them, you risk disturbing the asbestos and releasing its deadly fibres into the air.

These can be inhaled and have the potential to cause all sorts of conditions to develop, such as asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. This final disease is a type of cancer that affects the lining of the lung – as of yet, there is no cure for it.

– Do you know where asbestos can be found in and around the home?

Another risk for DIY renovators is that, even if they do know that asbestos could be present in their property, they don't know where it might be found.

There are a few common misperceptions surrounding asbestos that may lead even cautious DIYers to make a deadly mistake.

For instance, the Asbestos Education Committee and the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute claim that many people believe that only fibro homes are in danger of being contaminated by asbestos.

This is not the case. It was used in almost every type of property imaginable before the 1980s, including clad, weatherboard and even brick homes.

That's not all – a lot of people have no idea just how many products asbestos was used in. You won't just find it in the internal walls and ceiling of your property – it could be almost anywhere.

The official Asbestos Awareness Month website reveals that it could be present in cement flooring, on the underside of tiles, in the flues of fireplaces and even in your kitchen splashback!

In addition to this, many people do not realise that asbestos was often used when constructing or renovating outdoor products, such as dog kennels, fences, gutters, sheds and as backing for electrical meter boards.

– Are you performing renovations after a natural disaster?

Over the past few years, Australia has been subject to more than its fair share of natural disasters.

These severe weather events have not only damaged and destroyed many homes around the country, but also put many people at risk of being exposed to asbestos when they attempt to put their properties and their lives back together again.

On January 2, for instance, WA Today published an article that revealed ex-tropical cyclone Christine had "dislodged or damaged" many building materials containing asbestos as it swept through towns such as Pilbara, exposing the residents of these areas to this deadly substance.

Laine McDonald, asbestos lawyer for Slater and Gordon, said that anyone cleaning up their properties – whether they be homes, businesses or other structures – could be at risk of exposure.

This goes for any town affected by a natural disaster. If you begin renovations without taking the proper precautions, you are putting yourself and your neighbours at risk.

How can you protect yourself from exposure to asbestos?

Asbestos Awareness recommends not performing any DIY tasks until you know your property is not contaminated with asbestos.

There is only one way to find out for sure if your home contains asbestos or not, and that's by sending a sample of the building material you intend to work with to the National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA) and getting it tested.

Many towns, such as Pilbara (mentioned above), have their own asbestos handling and removal safety procedures in place, too. So, make sure you contact your local council before starting work and make sure you get the relevant approval – or, if necessary, call the experts in.

If you're a frequent DIYer or are going to be performing renovations on your property in future, you may also want to undertake asbestos awareness training with AlertForce.

We offer an online course that you can complete quickly, which will give you a good overview of the Codes of Practice and Work Health and Safety Regulations that have been put in place for those working in asbestos-contaminated areas.

AlertForce can also provide nationally recognised asbestos training courses for removing both types of asbestos (non-friable and friable), as well as courses for people who want to be able to supervise asbestos removal.