The Disraeli Room

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Airtight on Asbestos – A campaign to save our future

25th November 2019

On the 24th of November 1999, the United Kingdom banned the use of asbestos. Twenty years later and this toxic mineral still plagues public health, being linked to multiple diseases including mesothelioma.
But why has asbestos remained such a threat to public health, despite laws which prevent its use? The answer is two-fold.
First, vast quantities remain inside public and private buildings throughout the UK. This is because we used asbestos heavily in construction up until the 1980’s and have been unable, or perhaps unwilling, to remove it from the schools, hospitals, and domestic premises’ where it remains in-situ.
Second, the laws we enact to manage this in-situ asbestos, such as the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (CAR12), do not effectively safeguard the public from harm. Not only do our asbestos laws lag those in many European countries, such as Germany and France, but evidence has pointed to there being widespread non-compliance with CAR12 in the UK.
A key issue in the UK is ignorance. We are simply unaware of how much harm asbestos is causing. And this is not because such knowledge is unattainable, rather, it is due to our substandard regulatory framework, which belittles the actual harm of asbestos.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) require a ‘duty holder’ to ‘manage the risk’ of asbestos exposure in public buildings. These ‘duty holders’ are responsible for identifying the location and condition of asbestos. When it is disturbed or removed, air monitoring take place to ensure the concentration of airborne asbestos fibres are at a ‘safe’ level, before the building is repopulated. Concerns about the risk, and cost, of removing asbestos has led the HSE to affirm that it is generally safer to leave asbestos in-situ than to remove it, provided it is in a ‘good condition’.
However, the HSE’s approach is rather unique in comparison to other countries. In fact, the UK has some of the weakest standards in Europe, while also having some of the highest mesothelioma rates.
The role of the duty holder has caused confusion, as it applies to different people depending on circumstances, which has led to widespread non-compliance.
There has been rising levels of occupational mortality due to asbestos-related disease, with nurses and teachers being 3 and 5 times more likely to develop mesothelioma because of their work environment.
Our air monitoring standards are ten times weaker than those in Germany and are unable to differentiate between the different types of asbestos fibres, which pose different levels of harm.
The European Parliament has called for the removal of asbestos from all European public buildings by 2028; we have made no such commitment.
While the cost of removing asbestos is presumed to be exorbitant, further research is necessary to determine exactly how much this would be in relation to the cost of perpetually maintaining asbestos, which degrades over time to become more of a threat.
Our ‘Airtight on Asbestos’ campaign seeks to influence the HSE’s regime on asbestos management so that it more accurately reflects the risk to public health. As a minimum, the UK should improve air monitoring standards in-line with those of our European counterparts. This will broaden our knowledge on the prevalence and risk of asbestos exposure across the country. Greater knowledge makes for more accurate data, which can inform a commitment to remove asbestos from locations where it is a high-risk.
The duty holder is a cornerstone of asbestos regulation, it is therefore crucial that this role is revised so that duties are articulated clearly, to address the issue of non-compliance. While changes to the law are required, compliance with the law is essential. As the former achieves nothing without the latter.
Twenty years since the ban and it is clear that we have made a mess of asbestos, hopefully in another twenty years we will have cleaned it up.

3 comments on “Airtight on Asbestos – A campaign to save our future”

  1. Yes, it’s a sad fact that, rather than evolve through increased knowledge and technology, the remediation of the asbestos problem has actually devolved over recent decades, due to various reasons. The HSE, once the much feared omnipotent governing body of the licensed asbestos removal contractor, has become a mere shadow of it’s former self, now grossly undermanned and self-funding, it doesn’t have the resources to keep up with the terrifying changes within the industry. There are now so many inexperienced surveyors, unlicensed removal contractors, creating further problems with the identification and removal of the 3000+ materials asbestos was used in. When I started removing these materials as a licensed contractor in 1987 the training was thorough and in depth, the cost of basic asbestos awareness for tradesmen and staff cost £80 and lasted four hours, nowadays you can get an ‘asbestos awareness certificate’ for completing an online multiple choice questionaire based on the very limited information they provide! all for £10. This is only contributing towards an increase in exposure when it should be reducing, there is still so much wrong that needs addressing! 🙁

  2. Dr G T Freshwater says:

    I am intrigued by your comment on the relative mortality of teachers and nurses from asbestos related diseases. What is the source if these figures, please? And is this only from mesothelioma, or other asbestos related illness? Can it be shown that it is due to asbestos contained in stable building materials?

    I worked as a Consultant Occupational Physician in the NHS, and for a Local Authority for many years, and was never aware of any research showing such a level of risk. It would be helpful to know where the research was published.

  3. It’s unreal that this is still an issue over 20 years later. With such a risk to public health it’s almost a wonder that this issue isn’t handled on a government level, but rather left up to individual home and property owners (the ones at risk) to pay for the removal themselves. if you can afford to be safe, your lucky, but sometimes these renovations are simply too expensive, so residents have no choice.

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