Q&A Series #10: Interview with Luke Amies

GRT Q&A with Luke Amies: Think Twice About Asbestos Campaign

About the guest

Luke is a qualified Principal Environmental Scientist, Licensed Asbestos Assessor and Certified Site Contamination Specialist with sixteen years of experience in contaminated land and environmental consulting. He is also recognised as a Suitably Qualified Person (SQP) in accordance with Section 564 of the Queensland Environmental Protection Act 1994. His specialties include soil, sediment, groundwater, surface water, soil vapor, PFAS and asbestos investigation, remediation and validation and the management of environmental risk.  

The topic of discussion: Think Twice About Asbestos Campaign

As part of National Asbestos Awareness Week 2021, Global Road Technology is reminding you to Think Twice About Asbestos as there is no known safe level of exposure to asbestos fibres.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral composed of fibers that are resistant to heat, electricity, and corrosion. Asbestos is still present in millions of homes, as well as public and commercial buildings, across Australia. This affects 1 in 3 homes nationwide which puts your health in danger and the average age of exposure is 23. Asbestos was widely used as an effective insulator, but when asbestos dust in inhaled or ingested, it can become permanently trapped in the body. Over decades, trapped asbestos fibers can cause inflammation, scarring and eventually genetic damage. Exposure can cause lung cancer, pleural mesothelioma and other health conditions. Always get your renovation project checked and contact a licensed asbestos professional when dealing with asbestos. These are some of the key points you must consider in thinking twice about asbestos:

  • Better safe than sorry.
  • Test, test, test. If you want to do a spot of DIY in your home, be safe and sensible about it. Asbestos is everywhere.
  • Work together, help each other.
  • Going to work should never be a grave decision. 

GRT caught up with Luke Amies, a Licensed Asbestos Assessor and Suitably Qualified Person (SQP) in accordance with Section 564 of the Queensland Environmental Protection Act 1994. Luke encourages Aussies and the rest of the world to be informed about the profound health risks posed by asbestos and be aware of where asbestos might be found in the built environment. 

1. Can you give us insights on asbestos contamination in Australia and the role of a contamination specialist?

Due to its heat-resistance and insulating properties asbestos was widely used in Australia from the early 1900’s up until the 1980’s, with Australia having one of the highest global uses of asbestos products per capita during the period between the 1960’s and 1980’s. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, Wittenoom in Western Australia (made famous by the Midnight Oil song Blue Sky Mine) was the largest supplier of crocidolite asbestos worldwide. Because it was readily available and used so widely, asbestos contamination is quite common and includes legacy contamination as well as recent contamination caused by mismanagement or illegal dumping. The role of a contamination specialist is to assess the nature and extent of any contamination and determine how to manage or remediate the impact to prevent risks to human health. Because asbestos is managed under several legislative frameworks (work health and safety, environmental and waste management), the contamination specialist will also ensure any works involving asbestos meet the relevant legislative requirements.

2. How has historical use of asbestos increased the risk of occupational and non-occupational exposure in Australia?

Risks were a lot higher when asbestos was being widely used, and when we didn’t fully understand the risks. These days, risks are a lot lower due to current regulations and general awareness of asbestos, but there’s still a lot of asbestos out there. It’s surprising how many different products asbestos was used in. If it remains in good condition and is not disturbed the risk is low but there’s still a lot of building materials that may require replacement in the future.

3. The pandemic drove DIY projects at home, what should people look out for to prevent themselves from asbestos exposure?

Start by understanding the history of your home, if it was built prior to 1980 it possibly will have some asbestos. The most common areas you’ll find asbestos around the home include roof sheeting and eaves, bathrooms and laundries, but there’s many other places it may be located. My top tips for homeowners are:

  • If you don’t need to disturb asbestos materials then don’t.
  • Don’t try and clean an asbestos roof or fence with a high-pressure hose. This can result in spreading asbestos all over your yard and your neighbors. It’s still surprises me when you hear of this occurring.
  • If you find a double layer wall it could indicate an old asbestos wall that has been covered over so make sure you determine this (safely) before proceeding any further.
  • If you live in an older suburb watch out for asbestos in your garden. Even if your house doesn’t have asbestos, it can still be present from building scraps, improper demolition or fill material used.
  • There’s a lot of good resources available which outline how to safely manage asbestos, but if you’re not sure then engage an expert to help you.

4. Is there ever any safe amount of exposure to asbestos dust and why is it important to consult a Suitably Qualified Person (SQP)?

The safe work exposure limit for airborne asbestos is 0.1 fibers per milliliter, however it is recommended that exposure to airborne asbestos is eliminated so far as is reasonably practicable. A suitably qualified person will help you understand your legal requirements and advise what actions are required to manage potential exposure to asbestos materials. Commercial businesses are required to identify any asbestos within the workplace and have an asbestos register. Identification of asbestos at a workplace is required to be completed by a ‘competent person’ who is suitability qualified in the identification of asbestos materials.

5. What is the fate of asbestos in water systems?

One of my favorite asbestos facts is that studies have detected asbestos in English and Canadian Beer. Asbestos filters were historically used for the clarification of beverages including beer and soft drinks. This process was phased out in the 1980’s so if you’re a fan of English and Canadian beer (don’t worry I won’t judge you) then you’re right to keep drinking. 

There’s currently no evidence of any risk from asbestos in drinking water. A study in 2018 estimated Australia still had approximately 40,000 km of active asbestos cement water distribution pipes, however these are progressively being removed and replaced with non-asbestos alternatives. 

6. What are some of the key challenges faced in environmental and contaminated land matters?

Whilst asbestos presents an ongoing challenge, the risks are now well known and there’s established methods for managing the risks. Every few years there tends to be a new focus on a particular contaminant. Currently there’s a big focus on Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS). Although it’s been around in commercial products since the 1940’s, there’s still a lot to learn about managing risks to human health and the environment. 

Environmental consulting is an ever-evolving field, which is influenced by further advancements in science and updated regulations. Keeping on top of everything can be a challenge, which is why it’s important to make sure you choose an environmental consultant who is active in the industry and up to date on current guidance and legislation. Early engagement with the administering authority on complex projects can also help overcome some of the challenges faced.

7. Moving forward, what is the role of remediation in achieving management of environmental risk?

There’s been a real shift from the ‘dig and dump’ mindset of taking contamination to landfill implementing remedial options to managing the specific risks in a more sustainable way. This is partly driven by government policy, and partly by organizations that place a high value on their social and environmental responsibilities. The key is to understand the site and specific risks so you can identify the optimum remediation solutions then implement these so that any risk is reduced to an acceptable level.

Keith Nare

Technical Head of Communications for GRT, Keith leads GRT's content strategy across various platforms, whilst coordinating internally to build the voice and opinions of the GRT team. Keith is a product of Nelson Mandela University and his PhD work focuses on Polymer and Physical Chemistry. He was a Research Associate at SANRAL in South Africa and later spent time as a Visiting Research Associate to NTEC at the University of Nottingham in the UK. He is a former Director of Communications for CALROBO in the USA.

Keith is passionate and enthusiastic about health and safety, sustainability, networking and finding synergy through conversations.