Don’t Breathe In: Bridging the Asbestos Safety Gap

Publication Details

This report is part of our UK-wide campaign ‘Airtight on Asbestos’ you can find the full report here.

Sometimes a danger can be everywhere and appear nowhere at all. Since the turn of the millennium, the UK has lived with the increasingly unknown dangers of one regrettable by-product of the Industrial Revolution: its legacy dependence on asbestos.

This group of naturally occurring minerals, once a mainstay of the construction industry, is still mined and used in many parts of the world today. During the 20th century, it was extracted, processed and manufactured on an industrial scale to form insulating and fire retardant products that were widely used in the built environment. Asbestos was a highly versatile and useful substance. However, it has also proven to be a highly toxic material that can cause serious and fatal forms of cancer and lung disease.

As the full extent of its dangers emerged, asbestos use was banned by most developed nations. It is now twenty years since the UK banned the manufacturing and use of all asbestos, meaning buildings constructed after 1999, when the ban came into force, no longer contain this deadly material. However, anything built or refurbished before this date may still contain asbestos, where it remains in an increasingly aged and deteriorating condition.

The UK today remains a storehouse of asbestos. There are six million tonnes of asbestos in the UK, most of which can be found in over 1.5 million buildings across our public estate, including our hospitals and schools. This means that many people are still exposed to the potential dangers of asbestos on a daily basis. And while workers are no longer manufacturing or installing asbestos, the substance continues to be the UK’s number one occupational killer, causing more than 5,500 deaths last year.

This review summarises the discussion around current asbestos legislation and regulation and aims to highlight the dangerous unknowns in current research, policy and practice. We also make the case throughout this report that asbestos, far from being yesterday’s problem, is a real and present threat to potentially thousands of lives for many generations to come. Our goal is to inform the objectives of a national campaign to reorder the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE’s) parameters for the management of asbestos in-situ.