• General Manager at Octfolio.com.au, Sebastian Tiller.
    General Manager at Octfolio.com.au, Sebastian Tiller.

General Manager at Octfolio.com.au, Sebastian Tiller, examines the impact of HVAC systems on asbestos fibre circulation in commercial buildings.

Since there is a history of asbestos use in construction, along with serious health implications, the role of HVAC systems in potentially disturbing these fibres is becoming a significant concern. 

HVAC systems, central to air quality and climate control in commercial buildings, inadvertently contribute to the mobilisation of asbestos fibres. Given that older buildings frequently contain asbestos-laden materials, HVAC operations can disturb these fibres, elevating health risks.

A thorough grasp of this relationship is vital for effective asbestos management in building maintenance. The focus of this article is the critical interaction between HVAC systems and asbestos fibre circulation in commercial buildings.

Commercial buildings

Asbestos was a prevalent building material due to its fire resistance and insulation capabilities. Its widespread application in older commercial buildings — particularly in insulation, roofing, and tiles — presents ongoing health risks.

 HVACR professionals must be aware of this historical context to identify and manage asbestos in renovations and maintenance.

The inhalation of asbestos fibres is linked to severe respiratory diseases, such as lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis.

These health risks, often latent and emerging years after exposure, necessitate rigorous safety measures in environments with asbestos. Awareness and proactive management of these risks are crucial for protecting building occupants.

Despite its discontinued use, asbestos is still found in numerous commercial buildings, especially those constructed before the 1990s, including government buildings. It's important to note that government buildings constructed prior to 1990 are most at risk of containing asbestos, although some buildings constructed up to December 2003 may also contain asbestos in their plant and equipment. 

This prevalence requires vigilant assessment and management to ensure safe handling and mitigation of asbestos risks. Regular building evaluations are essential for identifying and safely managing asbestos-containing materials.

HVAC systems in commercial buildings are engineered to optimise air temperature and quality. Their design incorporates air handling units, ductwork, and ventilation mechanisms crucial for creating a conducive indoor environment. However, these systems also have the potential to influence particulate matter distribution, which is an often overlooked aspect of their operation.

The role of HVAC systems extends beyond temperature regulation to impacting the air circulation patterns within a building. In structures with asbestos-containing materials, particularly where these materials are aging or disturbed, HVAC airflow can facilitate the dispersion of asbestos fibres. 

Consider a scenario in an older building where aging asbestos insulation is disturbed by the airflow from the HVAC system. This can lead to asbestos fibres being swept into the building's air circulation system, increasing health risks for occupants. There is a pressing need for careful consideration of HVAC system placement, maintenance, and the potential disturbance of asbestos materials in older buildings.

Asbestos risks

Faults in HVAC systems, such as improper installation, inadequate maintenance, or physical damage, can lead to the unintentional disturbance of asbestos materials. Vibrations or pressure changes caused by these faults can release asbestos fibres into the air, posing a significant health hazard. 

There have been documented instances where the functionality of HVAC systems has led to significant asbestos fibre release. One study investigated airborne asbestos exposures from warm air heating systems in schools, highlighting scenarios where aging or damaged systems can substantially increase airborne asbestos levels. The findings underscore the need for regular inspections, proper maintenance, and prompt repair of HVAC systems in buildings with potential asbestos materials to mitigate health risks.

Neglected HVAC maintenance can lead to increased wear and tear, heightening the risk of disturbing asbestos-containing materials. Regular maintenance and inspection of these systems are essential for preventing the spread of asbestos fibres and ensuring a safe indoor environment.

Best practice

Designing HVAC systems in buildings with potential asbestos materials requires a strategic approach. This involves:

  •          Careful placement of air handling units and ductwork to minimise disturbance of asbestos-containing materials, and incorporating vibration dampening features. 
  •          Regular maintenance routines for HVAC systems: These routines should include thorough inspections, cleaning, and immediate repairs, preferably conducted by professionals trained in asbestos risk management. 
  •          Effective air filtering and containment strategies: Implementing High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters can significantly reduce the risk of asbestos fibres circulating through HVAC systems. Containment strategies during maintenance or renovation work are vital to limit asbestos fibre release into the environment.

Regular inspections of HVAC systems and asbestos-containing materials, compliant with Australian health and safety regulations, are imperative. These inspections play a key role in maintaining safe commercial environments, and as such should be performed by certified professionals, capable of identifying potential risks and ensuring adherence to safety guidelines. 

Health guidelines

Australian legal standards regarding the management of asbestos in commercial buildings are stringent, particularly concerning HVAC systems. These standards include directives for proper identification, handling, and disposal of asbestos materials, as well as specific requirements for HVAC system design and maintenance. 

Health guidelines for asbestos management emphasise risk assessment, safe handling, and meticulous management of asbestos-containing materials. Industry best practices involve regular training for HVAC professionals, the adoption of safe work procedures, and the use of appropriate personal protective equipment. Staying informed and following these practices ensures the health and safety of both building occupants and maintenance personnel.

HVAC professionals bear significant responsibility in ensuring safety and compliance with asbestos management standards. Their role involves staying informed about evolving regulations, employing best practices in system design and maintenance, and ensuring safety is a priority in all operations. Their expertise is critical in maintaining the health and safety standards in commercial buildings.


Effective HVAC management is essential in mitigating the risks posed by asbestos in commercial buildings. A comprehensive understanding of how HVAC systems interact with asbestos materials, combined with adherence to best practices in system design, maintenance, and operation, is fundamental in ensuring safe indoor environments.

The HVACR industry must commit to ongoing education and compliance in the context of asbestos management. Professionals in the field need to stay current with regulatory changes and technological advancements — strict adherence to safety standards is imperative to safeguard the well-being of all individuals in commercial buildings.

About the author

Sebastian Tiller is the general manager of Octfolio.com.au and is passionate about making workplaces safer for everyone, one hazard at a time.