Thursday, December 6, 2012


TLDR Summary

  • Many people don’t know that many doors to flats (units/ apartments) in Australia contain very dangerous levels of asbestos
  • The asbestos in doors is concealed under timber and there are no features that identify a door containing asbestos from one that does not
  • It is common to drill, bore and chisel doors out to fit locks and other door hardware. These processes release high levels of asbestos dust.
  • There is no safe level of asbestos exposure, 35% of people who die of mesothelioma cannot recall ever having been exposed to asbestos
  • The risk that doors present greatly exceeds that of most other asbestos products and yet awareness of asbestos in doors is low
  • Door hardware manufacturers, Standards Agencies (which gave mandate for asbestos doors) and governments have a duty of care to spread awareness of asbestos risks when fitting door hardware or otherwise working with doors containing asbestos.
  • There should be a legal obligation for building owners to test and replace all asbestos filled doors over some time period
  • All door hardware (e.g. locks, hinges, peep holes, etc) manufacturers/ importers should print warnings (or be required to print warnings) on the common use of asbestos in doors in Australia
  • This is a call to action for door hardware manufacturers and importers to raise awareness of risks that users and installers of their products expose themselves to.

Example of exposed asbestos door core (source:


This is completely off topic for me. I recently inadvertently exposed myself to a substantial quantity (some 60 CCs) of asbestos dust. It arose from the simple, and seemingly innocuous process of installing a door lock. I had previously been unaware that asbestos had been used in doors- and would never have expected to find it within the lock fitting region of a door.

A mundane, minor DIY job, and yet one that exposed me to the perfect setup to inhale finely cut dust issuing from a speed bore as it cut through what appeared to be wood. No doubt an event frequently and unwittingly repeated throughout Australia, contributing to the 35% and growing share of mesothelioma deaths where the victim cannot recall a source of asbestos exposure.

Mesothelioma, the terminal and untreatable cancer caused by asbestos, has an approximately 20-year gestation, and so it is often difficult to track the original source and cause. While we are accustomed to hearing of deaths of asbestos-handling workers, increasingly people with only incidental exposure are having their lives taken prematurely.  The recent death of incidentally exposed Australian mountaineer Licoln Hall  illustrates this only too well.

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. I am now, and I want to make sure that when someone else types Padde Doors or Fire Control Pty Ltd into Google, they immediately know they’re dealing with asbestos.

What Happened to Me

My next-door neighbour had been recently robbed. The robber broke in by picking a standard door lock. My neighbour responded by having a second (more secure) lock fitted, and suggested I do likewise. I thought, "that makes sense, I will". So I got myself a new security lock.

Fitting a lock is pretty straight-forward. No matter the kind of lock, they all require some quite big holes to be made in the door. Some require a couple of big round holes, other, as in my case, require a mortice (or square hole) to be cut out of the door’s inner edge.

So, following the manufacturers guide, I chiselled a rebate for the lock face. So far, so good. All timber. I then drilled four adjacent 5/8” holes, each 4” deep with a speed bore, at eye level, ensuring the bore was true and square. Timber swarf and dust came issuing out. Everything looked normal. What I hadn’t noticed, in the dimming afternoon light, was that the texture of the dust (still mixed with fragments of wood) had changed.

When I went to brush it off my shirt and sweep it out of the carpet I noticed some of the dust stuck into the pile. This was not wood dust. There was grey amongst the brown. I shone the light of my iphone into my freshly bored mortice, and to my surprise I noticed the wood on the door’s edge was only about one-and-a-half inches (35mm) deep, and the rest (60mm) was a whitish-grey gypsum-ish colour.

The worst immediately occurred to me. It was a door rated for fire against the Australian Standard. It was made in the 1980s. The dust I had been working with for the last hour, the dust in the air I breathed, on my shirt and in my carpet was probably asbestos.

In a state of shock I turned to google. “Padde Doors” nothing. “Fire Systems Pty Ltd” nothing relevant. “Asbestos door” bingo. My eyes skipping through the results with increasing distress, I quickly learned that doors on flats (units/ apartments) in Australia and the United States had been systematically fitted with asbestos filled doors in the period 1960-1990.

The next morning I took a sample of the core to a testing laboratory in Sydney, and they confirmed that asbestos was indeed present. Both white and the more dangerous grey asbestos.

I was overcome with a sense of pathetic powerlessness and fate. Have I just destined myself for a premature, agonising death in 20 years, joining the late Mr Hall?

What I found

Between about 1960 and 1990 it was common practice to fit flats (units/ apartments) in Australia with asbestos-filled front doors. There are many tens of thousands of flats either built or renovated in this period throughout our cities.

There are no distinguishing features on these doors, such as labels, which would indicate the presence of asbestos, as opposed to say a solid timber door, fibreglass or gypsum.

The hazards are mentioned in some cases studies (like this example from South Australia) but are hardly publicised in Australia, as evidenced by Google results.

My most shocking discovery was just how dangerous these doors are. SafeWork Australia, under the auspices of the Attorney General’s Department, conducted several typical activities on asbestos containing materials, and carefully sampled the level of asbestos released into the surroundings. They reported results in the below table:

From “Asbestos Exposure and Compliance Study of Construction and Maintenance Workers” SafeWork Australia, February 2010, 

Typical work on an asbestos-cored door exposed workers to around ten-times the asbestos arising from most other typical source of asbestos dust.

This is in part due to the sheer volume of asbestos within the thin wooden casing, and in part due to the kind of work one is likely to do on a door (e.g. use a hole saw to install a lock).

After years of wearing dust masks to drill a hole in fibro, while containing swarf with a wet rag, I realised I had just exposed myself to more asbestos than I had encountered in my whole life in controlled situations.

What I find particularly disturbing is how insidious this threat is. Unlike vinyl tiles, fibro sheeting, and appliance wire insulation, the asbestos in a door is not visible and is not self evident. In fact it is convincingly concealed beneath a pleasant looking wooden skin. Bizarrely, though they ran an edge bead 35mm, the designers did not even make an effort to run solid timber to the depth where locks are normally installed: they expected installers to cut through the asbestos!

Disturbingly, a growing proportion of people suffering demise by mesothelioma were either incidentally exposed (i.e. not in the course of a persistent source) or cannot recall being exposed at all.

How is it that something that the Attorney General’s Department knows is such an acute risk is going seemingly untreated?

Action That Can be Taken Now

In the first instance, it seems urgently important to build awareness of this risk. What better way than to target the information to the moment it’s needed- when people are working on doors.  There are two actions which would be effective and can be implemented in short order (perhaps you can think of others and suggest them in the comments):

Door hardware (including lock, hinge, peep hole) manufacturers and importers should place warnings on all their products advising installers of the risks of cutting holes in doors, and the precautions that should be taken should those doors be suspected of containing asbestos. Government has a role to ensure this happens if there is an unwillingness to exert this basic level of moral responsibility.

Building owners should be required to audit and identify (by a steel plaque or similar) all doors that contain asbestos. At present there is no way to distinguish a door containing asbestos from one which contains gypsum/ fibreglass, other than testing a sample of the core at a special laboratory.

The personal burden

I comfort myself by thinking “just as well I recognised it, and only exposed myself to it for an hour, and didn’t vacuum it out of the carpet thus distributing it throughout my flat and innocent bystanders lungs as well”.

After spending several hundred dollars on lab tests, special wet carpet cleaning, and continuing to ponder ripping up the whole surrounding carpet, I find myself frustrated and angered that I didn’t know.

I didn’t know any door contained asbestos, let alone within the region where locks are installed, let alone in residential flats, let alone in the 1980s, let alone in quantities so great it presented ten times the exposure of sanding or drilling fibro.

I just need to convince myself not to think about what could happen to me, after all mesothelioma is untreatable. 


  1. Well done David, as a professional locksmith I have been working to raise awareness will all and sundry in the Industry. I also held an executive position with the Locksmiths Guild of Australia and the topic consumed large amounts of time at chapter meetings.

    Alas there is a large amount or pressure brought to bare on Locksmiths to install or service locks on standard doors let alone a door that needs a minimum of 2 people when repairing or servicing a lock on a door that "may" contain asbestos. Unit owners and Real estate agents continue to "get back to me" after I quote a repair which protects both locksmith and tenant. Our Taringa Locksmith shop is smack bang in the middle of 4 suburbs that contains a large number of units and we regularly service the locks. Whilst the Locksmith Industry is forced to protect people working on doors that might have asbestos under Workplace safety the handyman industry is a long way short. I am all for people doing home reno's themselves but the cost to our community in my opinion has not been calculated properly. Ladder falls top the list incidentally.

    I share your concerns and applaud you for raising the alarm, well done again.

    Kel Phillips Partner KGB Security Locksmiths Taringa

    1. Thanks Kel. Unfortunately aside from Sam de Brito's piece in Fairfax papers, I've had very little response on this problem. I did write letters about it to both the Federal minister for health (for whom I thought it would have the most relevance), and to my local fed MP Malcolm Turnbull. I got a response only from Turnbull offering to ask my local Municipal mayor to run an awareness piece in a local Sydney Eastrern Suburbs paper.
      I think a single local newspaper opinion piece wouldn't have really been a solution, and unsurprisingly it never happened anyway. Sounds like the locksmith profession has already had a go at getting action, so I guess it's swept under the rug for the time being.
      I guess nobody should be surprised when the deaths occur on a latency 5x longer than the electoral cycle.

  2. Hello David , thank you for your article on the dangers of asbestos Fire doors . Please check out -BURNIE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS AND STAFF - 1977 - 1978 - 1979 ASBESTOS ALERT on Face book .
    I eagerly await your reply ,
    Jeff Crowe .

    1. Hi Jeff, I can only say I'm sorry to hear you have experienced the same problem, and I think you're doing the best thing you can do- raise awareness. At least if you, your colleagues, or former students are alert to the symptoms of mesothelioma, they have a chance of early intervention (and a marginally better prognosis). My understanding is that you do have to be unlucky to contract mesothelioma after occasional exposure, but the unfortunate fact is it can happen, as in the case of the late Mr Hall. Let's hope neither of us fall in that category!

  3. I have been a commercial fire door installer and technician in Melbourne for the past 15 years. What i have seen in this time relating to lack of awareness is deeply disturbing. If I were to tell you the amount of unorthodox repairs and modifications I see on a daily basis from handymen, data/security techs, painters and locksmiths. to asbestos core fire doors in our schools, hospitals, government buildings, factories, shopping centers, office buildings, sports, music, arts centres and carparks you would be chilled to the bone.

    This is not including contamination from lack of quarantine and rectification of damaged or degraded doors by responsible facilities management reps.
    I have seen apartment entry doors that had been so degraded they were literally puffing white dust every time they closed. One tenant's door had been rubbing on the concrete floor for the last year leaving a small trail of white dust on her front step every time it opened or closed.
    If you suspect a door mabe asbestos:
    -check the date on hinge side of door. 1985 onwards is not asbestos,
    -pre-1985 or no cert. tag treat as asbestos.

    I have no doubt we are in the midst of a public epidemic.

  4. Is this just front doors or interior doors also?

    1. Danielle I believe these doors were primarily used as entry doors, both interior and exterior, but are also used fire escape doors and room doors in some commercial and public buildings. The door on which I wrote this post is an interior entry door to my flat from a common hallway.

  5. Welcome to being an acceptable loss.

    Everybody in government knows how big the asbestos problem is in Australia. However, to actually clean it up would cost more than we are worth
    We Australians made ourselves busy for over 100 years digging it up and trying to add it to just about everything. I beleive people even used to brush their teeth with it.

    So, who cares if you, me and couple for thousand others are accidentally exposed to asbestos every year. You may not get sick, or you may not get sick until your to old to matter (you understand what I mean -asbestos diseases can have latency periods of 20 - 50 years).
    Also, if you grew up in Australia it's likely this is not your first exposure.
    The stuff is everywhere.