Fair Go: Family battles company over bill to clean up asbestos in their first home

Update as of September 2020: We're pleased to say the two parties have now come to an agreement. The couple can't reveal the details but they can say: “The initial scope of work we employed Chemcare to do was done well. While we were not happy with further work, we acknowledge if we had paid Chemcare a contribution as per the contract it would have unlikely ended up in this place. Chemcare have been helpful at resolving this and we now count the matter closed.”

They’re deadly, dirty and costly to clean up - asbestos fibres are not something you want floating around your home.

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Buying your first home can be scary, but moving into your first home and having to deal with asbestos would be terrifying. Source: Fair Go

“The starting point for anything to do with asbestos is know what you're dealing with and then you can make a plan. If you don't know what you're dealing with then you're always on the back foot,” says health and safety expert Mike Cosman.

Asbestos can be in a lot of materials in any home built since the 1940s right up until 2000.

Exposure to the fibre from wear and tear or renovation and demolition can lead to fatal illnesses.

150 deaths a year here are linked to asbestos, so his recommendation to homeowners is to spend some money on good advice.

“The first stage is to get a professionally qualified asbestos assessor to come in and undertake a survey,” Mr Cosman says.

That’s what one Auckland couple thought they were doing.

Ingrid Starnes and Simon Pound hired Chemcare to remove asbestos from the 1940s house they’d bought - their first step into home ownership.

Chemcare’s general manager visited their home with the company’s in-house licensed asbestos assessor to quote on removing ceilings and to discuss asbestos in other places on the property.

“They laid it on really thick they kept saying ‘don’t worry we'll look after you’,” Mr Pound says.

The walk through included talk about asbestos in their garage walls and other cladding, but the couple weren’t alerted to the possibility it was in their flooring.

“The bathroom and the toilet that turned out to both have asbestos in the floors behind the lino; none of that was mentioned," says Mr Pound, nor was the kitchen floor, which he tore up himself, the night before Chemcare’s workers arrived to set up the job.

“I was like ‘how did we not know?’, how have I got this lungful of asbestos?”

The couple say there’s no way they would have done it if they’d been warned there was a risk of exposure and feel the firm had a duty of care to warn them when it was assessing their property.

They say Chemcare then insisted its walk through didn’t constitute an asbestos survey, that it had mentioned the need for a survey and that their licensed assessor was only in their home for a chat.

The work did go ahead - including some of the new areas where the couple had exposed the asbestos. The couple then disputed Chemcare’s workmanship, the final clearance certificate, and the bill of $20,000.

WorkSafe sent an inspector to look at the work and the process followed. The safety regulator handed Chemcare an Improvement Notice, for starting asbestos removal work without a survey.

While Chemcare played that notice down to Fair Go, comparing it to a peer review, Mr Cosman says an Improvement Notice is a legal enforcement tool.

“I wouldn't say it's a peer review, it's not something that's issued lightly, it's a legal enforcement tool it’s challengeable in the district court.”

Chemcare didn’t appeal the notice and satisfied WorkSafe with written undertakings about how it operates, but the firm was still taking the couple to court over the unpaid bill.

When Fair Go got involved, Chemcare offered to talk directly with the couple - here’s hoping they can settle their dispute.

The top tips for anyone looking at renovations or buying a home which may contain asbestos are:

• In any building work, be careful about “scope creep” where work expands beyond what both sides thought was the job, so it’s wise to be very clear who you are hiring, what they say they will do and what they won’t be doing and to get all of that in writing.

• Get an approved assessor to conduct a management survey first. It might cost more than $1000, but it’s an important step before any renovations.

• Check the WorkSafe register to see if the people you are using are licensed for asbestos work.

• Ask for references or hire based on a recommendation from a happy customer.

• The assessor and removers should be independent, and the assessor should come back to sign off the job prior to handing the property over. It’s crucial for the customer to read that clearance certificate and understand what has been done and what hasn’t.

• Don’t freak out – asbestos can be taken away or contained but all work needs to follow the rules.