Image: A damaged asbestos fire door
After a neighbour in his block of flats was robbed, engineer David Caldwell decided to install a new lock on his front door - a fire door of the kind often found in Australian apartment buildings and offices. Installing the lock involved drilling a large hole in the door.
While drilling, Caldwell noticed that some of the dust no longer looked like wood dust. Instead, it was a whitish grey colour. An asbestos testing laboratory confirmed the bad news: Caldwell's drilling had released asbestos dust fibres into the air.
Although well aware of the general risks of asbestos, Caldwell didn't realise that asbestos is extremely common in fire doors:
I have always been particularly careful to protect myself from asbestos dust. I’ve even lectured builders on the subject. Cladding, concealed walls, vinyl tiles, appliance electrical wiring, old clutch pads and brake shoes. All of these I knew of.
Bizarrely, I was never aware of the asbestos in doors.
Caldwell's unawareness isn't unusual. At Airsafe, we constantly come across situations where fire doors have been allowed to release asbestos dust into the atmosphere. Asbestos fibres can be released when a fire door:
- is drilled into to install a lock, latch or peephole
- is removed without proper precautions
- is broken or cracked
- is scraped off at the edges over time because it doesn't fit properly
A damaged asbestos-containing fire door
Although there's no danger as long as the doors are intact, the asbestos they contain (a mixture of chrysotile and amosite asbestos) is extremely friable, so once the doors are damaged, air monitoring results are often among the highest we see.
The problem is compounded by the fact that removalists and other tradespeople are often completely unaware of the precautions that need to be taken when dealing with fire doors that contain asbestos.
Asbestos fire door safety - Our recommendations
Airsafe recommends the following steps to make sure you don't expose yourself and others to asbestos when dealing with fire doors:
- If unsure, assume the door contains asbestos, and don't drill into it or remove it without taking proper precautions.
- If the door is already damaged and you notice white or grey dust, get a sample tested immediately by a NATA accredited laboratory like Airsafe's. (Airsafe can deliver results the same day if required.) In the meantime, stay away from the area.
- Unless you're sure the door doesn't contain asbestos, engage a contractor with a friable asbestos removal license. Airsafe can recommend a reliable contractor in Sydney or NSW, and can also provide air quality monitoring during removal.
- Make sure your contractor uses a vacuum cleaner approved for asbestos removal to clean up asbestos-containing dust. Ordinary vacuum cleaners - even heavy-duty commercial ones - won't do the job.