Construction Substance Abuse: The Effects of ‘P’ and Asbestos on Our Buildings

August 1, 2016

Mark Williams offers a closer look at two key ‘shadows’ lurking around every corner waiting to catch the unwary with some very scary and dire consequences.

The effects of P (methamphetamine) and the use of asbestos in our built environment, in Mr William’s view, constitute a ‘construction substance abuse’.

These two products present a real risk to staff throughout New Zealand.  According to the Ministry of Health, amphetamines were used in 2015 by 26,000 adults between the ages of 16 and 64.  The risks ‘P’ poses are not limited to the physical, mental, and emotional damage it causes its users alone.  A significant volume of ‘P’ is manufactured in houses and in commercial or industrial buildings – ‘out of sight’.

“The manufacture of ‘P’ is affecting the very buildings that we live in and that we access every day,” Mr Williams said.

“New Zealanders on the one hand are grappling with a chronic under supply of residential housing.  Yet our most needy families are being directly affected by past users or manufacturers of ‘P’ contaminating hundreds if not thousands of private and state owned houses.”

Users of ‘P’ often contaminate their surroundings through spillages in preparing, snorting or injecting the drug.  Similarly, residues from smoking ‘P’ pose a serious risk as the highly toxic chemicals at play are known to infiltrate and remain in furniture upholstery, curtains and carpets for an appreciable amount of time, long after the culprit has left.

A somewhat less personal but potentially just as physically harmful ‘substance’, present in homes, high-rises, industrial and commercial buildings and in schools, is asbestos.  Asbestos was generally mined and used for its excellent insulating properties and its strength and is made up of a number of naturally occurring silicate minerals in fibrous form.  Significant historic producers of asbestos were Russia, China, Brazil, Kazakhstan and Canada.  Figures show approximately a third of the world was still manufacturing asbestos products in 2012, with around a fifth of the world having banned its use by then.

“Thankfully New Zealand is finally about to ban the importation of asbestos (expected from October 1, 2016) apart from products that are granted an exemption.”

Asbestos has been linked to 107,000 estimated world-wide deaths per year by the World Health Organization through exposure in mining, manufacturing, installations in buildings, ship construction. Recently exposures have occurred in construction, maintenance, asbestos removal work, and work related to buildings that pre date 2000.

Most commonly, workers inhale asbestos fibres.  These fibres then enter and become lodged in the lungs with no way out.  The greater the number of fibres inhaled the more extensive the scarring in one’s lungs.  Asbestos fibres can also be ingested and have been known to cause corns and warts through skin contact.  But the worst diseases that can be fatal following inhalation and are called asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer.  Non-fatal diseases are associated with thinning of the lung lining (Plural Plaques) and are caused by limited or localized scarring as a result of fibres in the lungs.

The families of workers exposed to second hand asbestos fibres are also of concern.  Accidentally workers have returned home with contaminated clothes or tools which have then been handled by a wife doing the washing or even a child jumping up to give her daddy a hug on his return home from work.  One cannot easily overlook the risks, dangers and very sad results of exposure to asbestos fibres.

Mr Williams said to deal with asbestos is a “reasoned approach”.

“Firstly we help our clients to understand what their risks are once asbestos is suspected to be present within or on their building.

“An investigative asbestos survey is planned in close communication with the building owner, operator and occupiers.  This is to ensure the purpose of the survey is clear and the outcome or reporting meets the needs of our client.”

Clients wanting to meet their obligations must firstly understand the implication of the Health and Safety at Work (Asbestos) Regulations 2016.  A building owner (Person Carrying out a Business Undertaking – PCBU) is prohibited from causing work to be undertaken on any asbestos containing material/product/building element except in strict adherence to the Asbestos 2016 regulations.

A management survey will typically seek to identify any asbestos containing materials that are reasonably discoverable and then provide reporting and an Asbestos Register for ongoing management purposes.  Damaged or unbound fibres must be removed under controlled circumstances as these place occupants or maintenance personnel at high risk of exposure.  The extent of any asbestos containing materials (ACM), its location, accessibility, concentration and types of fibres are some key criteria that determine what course of action is reasonable in managing affected building elements.

If the asbestos is bound in a product such as asbestos cement and is installed at more than three metres above ground level, there is no immediate need to remove it.  However the PCBU needs to know it is there so maintenance personnel or contractors can be warned not to disturb it.  The PCBU is also responsible to ensure it does not degrade and ‘give off’ asbestos fibres that might affect drinking water or that pieces don’t fall to the ground and become ‘accessible’ as a result.

Many clients undertake refurbishments with assistance from Prendos. Survey techniques need to be fully invasive, with linings and claddings broken open to effectively make every effort to discover even the smallest section of ACM present.  Prendos asbestos surveyors are certified, trained and skilled in safe yet thorough survey techniques.

“The ongoing management of buildings with known or suspected ACM’s will remain a challenge for every PCBU.

“We aim to assist further in this regard by providing a ‘Client Portal’ for our clients to update and manage information about the asbestos in their building as planned maintenance is undertaken or if circumstances change.  In this way they are fully supported in carrying out their duties as a PCBU in terms of the Asbestos 2016 Regulations.”

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