Homeowner Bobi Zhang had no idea of the potential danger lurking in her backyard after moving into her property in January this year. It was only when a worker came to mow the council-owned reserve behind her home that she began to ask questions, after noticing her back fence had been taped off.
It was about two weeks ago, Zhang told Yahoo News Australia. "We haven’t received any formal notice from council," she said. A photo of the Sydney property, taken from the back, shows black and yellow striped tape running the length of her boundary fence, attached to a pole on either side.
Asbestos-containing material was extensively used in Australian products up to about 1987 when its use ceased in the building industry, followed by a total ban on use in 2003. Today, asbestos still exists in millions of buildings and structures across Australia, including in one in three homes.
Older homes built before 1990 are particularly at risk with anything from flooring to walls and roofing and gutters potentially containing asbestos. But for Zhang, it's her back fence which appears to have deteriorated over time. "I never thought the fence would be a problem, to be honest. I'm getting worried now," she said.
Homeowner uncovers the truth on Facebook
Zhang only learned of the harmful threat after she sought advice on Facebook. Wondering why her fence was taped off, Zhang asked, "does anyone know what these strips for?". "It was put behind our yard for over a week without any notification. And only behind our yard…not others," she added.
The homeowner was shocked by the responses she got telling her to "beware". "It looks like a warning that there is decaying fibro there that may possibly contain asbestos," one said. "They are corrugated asbestos sheets u have on your fence".
Council responds to 'asbestos' claim
Fairfield City Council confirmed to Yahoo News Australia, that a worker erected the tape after attending to the lawns. "Council staff taped off the area to create a buffer between parks and gardens machinery and the fence during lawn mowing," a spokesperson said. This is to ensure the fence is "not disturbed" due to the likelihood of asbestos.
"Council will undertake an assessment of the fence, and will be in contact with the property owner in due course," they added.
How is asbestos harmful?
When disturbed asbestos can release microscopic fibres which if inhaled lodge in lung tissues causing significant and irreversible health effects, including asbestosis, mesothelioma (always fatal) and lung cancer. Many symptoms do not appear until 20 or 30 years after exposure. According to the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, about 4,000 Australians die each year from mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases — that’s about three times the national road toll.
"Asbestos materials are now ageing and degrading, increasing the risk of releasing deadly asbestos fibres. More frequent extreme weather events such as floods and fires are also increasing the risk of asbestos exposure and contamination of the environment," the Council's Chair Paul Bastian said.
A number of studies show that when left undisturbed, asbestos does not pose a "significant health risk" and there are small quantities always present in the environment.
"It's when you started to disturb it you've got a problem, or if something happens like a fire, tornado, hurricane, or adverse weather that damages the building," said Neil Shepherd from National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA). "Or if somebody comes along and does some ill-advised renovations."
Love Australia's weird and wonderful environment? Get our new weekly newsletter showcasing the week’s best stories.