Asbestos not a major health risk for NZ homeowners

Asbestos exposure during the post-earthquake Canterbury rebuild is unlikely to cause significant health problems for house occupants, according to a new report published this week by the Royal Society of New Zealand and Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor.

Earthquake-damaged building in Christchurch.
Earthquake-damaged building in Christchurch.
Credit: Flickr/Gabriel Goh

The report, titled Asbestos Exposure in New Zealand: Review of the Scientific Evidence of Non-occupational Risks, looks at the scientific evidence about the risks of asbestos exposure to residents of houses undergoing renovation and repair work.

It found that the health risks are generally low, with exceptions being if homeowners perform the work themselves without taking proper precautions.

Sir David Skegg, cancer epidemiologist and President of the Royal Society President, explained in a press release that it is the inhalation of asbestos fibres, not skin contact or ingestion, that has been established as causing harm. Those who are frequently exposed to large volumes of asbestos without adequate protection, such as wetting the surfaces and wearing respirators, can develop a variety of life-threatening lung diseases and cancers.

“The health risks from asbestos inhalation are influenced by the intensity, the frequency, and the duration of the exposure, with some variation in risk based on the type of asbestos encountered,” Sir Skegg said. “The review found no evidence that a single peak in exposure of the kind encountered during house maintenance or repair would have a material effect on disease risk.”

However, he warns that the report does not provide grounds for complacency about the risks for people working with asbestos: “Homeowners must approach renovations with caution.”

A public meeting will be held to explain the report’s findings on 1 May.

The report has been covered in New Zealand media. Examples include:

The Press: No significant asbestos risk after Canterbury earthquakes
The New Zealand Herald: Asbestos cases may have peaked
Radio New Zealand: Govt urged to ban asbestos imports
Radio New Zealand, Morning Report audio: Home owners’ asbestos risk low but no room for complacency
Radio New Zealand, Morning Report audio: Canterbury’s medical officer of health – asbestos report
Radio New Zealand, Morning Report audio: Asbestos review offers little comfort to homeowners
Radio New Zealand, Nine to Noon audio: Report into asbestos exposure during Canterbury Rebuild
NZ Newswire: Scientists want asbestos banned