LEAD Action News

LEAD Action News vol 7 no 2, 1999, ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times ( ISSN 1440-4966) and Lead Advisory Service News ( ISSN 1440-0561)
The journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.

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What To Do About Ceiling Dust
A Fact sheet for Residents in "Tarptown"

By Elizabeth O'Brien, Coordinator,
The LEAD Group, and Manager, Lead Advisory Service (NSW)

Decide whether you might be affected by dust out of your ceiling cavity or void (the space below the roof and above the ceiling):

The older the house, the more dust will have built up in the ceiling void (up to half a ton may be present). If you are still living in your house and there are holes in your ceiling, broken skylights, cornices that do not seal the dust inside the ceiling cavity etc, in rooms that you cannot just "shut the door on" (eg essential rooms, open plan rooms, hallways that are in use), you may be at risk. If a ceiling in a room you are using is in imminent danger of collapse, you should not be using the room. If your roof is now or was previously asbestos cement, there may be asbestos fibres in the ceiling dust. If dust is getting from the ceiling cavity into the interior of the home and there are elderly or very young residents, asthmatics or people with other respiratory problems, if there are crawling babies or young children who still spend a lot of time playing on the floor, if there are children with a lot of hand-to-mouth activity (nail-biting, thumb-sucking, eating non-food items), in all these "at-risk" cases you need to act to stop the dust getting in and being inhaled or ingested OR you may have to remove the at-risk person from the dusty situation.

If you are still in your home and a contractor comes and kicks down your ceilings you definitely do not want to be breathing the dust or cleaning it up with your domestic vacuum cleaner. You would want the majority of the dust removed from the void before work begins on the ceilings.

If you decide you are being or will be affected by ceiling dust, negotiate with your ceiling or roof repairer – tell them you want the ceiling dust removed as part of their quote for the work. Ask them to call the Lead Advisory Service (phone 9716 0132) for a list of ceiling dust removal contractors (there are approximately 2 dozen companies on the list). Let them know that you are concerned for their health as well as the health of the residents, neighbours and the environment, especially mention any residents who are "at-risk" due to age, hand-to-mouth activity or respiratory disease. If the contractor ignores your concerns and says he's never been affected by the dust, ask him to show you the result from his last blood lead test. The blood lead level is just one indicator of exposure to ceiling dust but it is one that is easily measured by the GP or at the Workers Health Centre (phone 9897 2466). So if his blood lead level is higher than the Australian goal of 10 g/dL (micrograms per decilitre), this quashes his claim that he hasn’t been affected by the dust. If he hasn’t had a blood lead test but he's working in ceilings all the time, unless he shows a willingness to have the test, it could indicate that he is not concerned about his own health. Chances are, if he's not concerned about his own health, he may not be concerned about yours.

Once you have obtained a quote for ceiling dust removal and ceiling repair, submit it to your insurance assessor. If the claim is knocked back, ask for the reason in writing. If you are not satisfied by the reason given or you receive no written reply, you might offer the insurance company more information on the topic (such as the NSW EPA’s fact sheet Lead Safe: Lead in Ceiling Dust, or The LEAD Group’s newsletter LEAD Action News vol 7 no 2 1999). This information is available from the Lead Advisory Service (phone 9716 0132). Decide how much energy your dust situation is worth using up in negotiating or making a complaint. If you have other issues which are more urgent you may have to put the ceiling dust issue aside for a time. With any luck, the Minister for Industrial Relations or the Southern Sydney Recovery Task Force will have set a dust removal policy in the meantime.

At the time of the ceiling dust removal and ceiling demolition, leave the house unless the contractor is sure he can guarantee you will not be exposed to any dust. It is possible when the ceiling dust removalist has prepared the job properly (by taping plastic over all points of entry of dust), that no dust will enter the interior of the home. If the ceiling/s to be demolished after the dust removal, in a room or rooms which can be closed off (including sealing gaps under doors), staying home should be okay as well. If it’s not possible to contain the dust, children and anyone who is allergic to dust should stay away from the home until the dust has settled and been cleaned up. For ceilings that are being demolished, the contractor should pick up any building debris in plastic sheeting, then use an industrial HEPA vacuum cleaner on floors and other hard surfaces and finally wet clean all hard surfaces using a solution of sugar soap.

If you are observing a dust-releasing building repair job and you notice that an exposed worker is not wearing a respirator to filter the dust, phone WorkCover (131 050) to report your concern for the worker’s health. If they are allowing ceiling dust to enter stormwater gutters or drains, phone your local council who may be able to send an inspector out. The inspector must observe the contamination of stormwater while it is happening, to be able to fine the contractor. Similarly, paint (flakes or dust) is not permitted to enter stormwater.

If the clean-up by the contractor has left dust everywhere, ask for a proper clean-up. If it’s time to move the family back in but there’s still dust on everything, remember that only industrial strength HEPA vacuum cleaners (available from Safe-T-Vac on (02) 9531 2475) and wet-cleaning with liquid sugar soap is recommended for lead dust clean-up.

The "acid test" for whether a home is lead-safe for young children following demolition or repair work is a floor dust wipe that passes the clearance test. A floor wipe result below one milligram of lead per square metre of floor (1 mg/m2) is accepted as "cleared" for young children (under 5) to play on. You will need to purchase some disposable gloves, sandwich bags which seal properly, and Diaparene or other baby wash cloths (which are known to contain no lead contamination). Choose an area of floor that would be accessible to children and preferably an area where children would play on the floor. Carpeted or non-carpeted areas can be chosen. Label a clean sealing sandwich bag with the exact location of the sample, the address, the name of the person doing the dust collecting, the surface area to be wiped (in square centimetres), and the date. According to Fred Salome and Professor Brian Gulson (both lead assessors, among other things):-"An area is marked out on the surface to be sampled. The area should be at least 250 cm2, preferably 900 cm2 (ie 30 X 30 cm) depending on the amount of dust present. The sample area is marked off using masking tape, the lengths of the sides of the sample area are measured and the surface area is calculated and noted…. [Then use one of the baby wash cloths to clean the lead off your hands (we all have small amounts of lead on our skin) and put on the disposable gloves.] A wipe [baby wash cloth] is placed flat onto the surface to be sampled and rubbed in an "S" pattern. The wipe is folded in half with dust inside and rubbed at 90 to the first "S" [thus picking up all the dust in the sample area]. The wipe is again folded with the dust inside and placed in a sterile sample container usually supplied by the analytical laboratory." The sample is then sent to a lab for lead analysis. A list of labs who do lead analysis is available from the Lead Advisory Service (phone 9716 0132) or you can ask NATA (National Association of Testing Authorities) by phoning 9736 8222, or you can look up "analytical laboratories" in the Yellow Pages. Prices vary enormously. Expect to pay at least $25 for lead analysis, more if other heavy metals are also analysed. For those rare hail damage victims who have time, you could write a letter to the NSW Minister for Industrial Relations, Jeff Shaw, or to the Minister for the Environment and Minister for Emergency Services, Bob Debus (Parliament House, Macquarie St, Sydney) asking them to set a disaster recovery policy:- that houses with ceilings damaged by hail have the ceiling dust vacuumed out prior to ceiling demolition. Such a policy would protect workers from excess exposure to the dust, and help to protect the residents and the environment from the contaminants in the dust as well as allow appropriate disposal of this contaminated waste (separated from other building debris). The lead in the dust can be recycled by taking the properly contained dust to the Australian Refined Alloys (ARA) secondary lead smelter in Alexandria (phone 9516 5099).

Remember that only you can keep the ceiling dust problem in the proper perspective. You will know if the electrical power is not safe or if there are other issues which take priority over the ceiling dust issue. Asbestos removal, whether done by the householder or a contractor, must follow the safety procedures in the Asbestos Regulations. Only asbestos removal for asbestos materials greater than 200 square metres in area requires a licensed asbestos contractor.

If you need assistance, you can call the wonderful people at the Recovery Centre on 9697 9389 for help with any problems. The Southern Sydney Recovery Task Force (according to its Community Information Update of 7th June 1999) will attend to all "high priority" households first and then extend its work to other households. "High priority" households include those with elderly people or children who are living in unsafe conditions. Houses are considered unsafe if the ceiling could fall down, if roof coverings could fall through the ceiling, if the roof covering could blow away, etc. Advice is available at the Recovery Centre for everyone – including people who are having difficulty getting work done on their homes, tenants, and relatives and neighbours of "high priority" households. For emergency help call 1800 227 228. The Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) has a representative who handles insurance complaints and who is a member of the Southern Sydney Recovery Task Force. Phone the Insurance Council of Australia on 9253 5100.

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Last Updated 08 October 2011
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