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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.
1. Government should bring the Health & Safety regime for the management of asbestos up to the highest international standards, as currently practiced in Germany, the Netherlands and France.
2. Government should establish a central register of all asbestos currently in place in public buildings across the UK (including schools, hospitals and social housing). This should identify precise location, type and condition. We suggest that this duty, alongside appropriate resources and capability, should be devolved to the local authority level.
3. Government should commission a cost-benefit analysis for the removal of all asbestos from public buildings in the UK. In turn, it should commit to a frame for phased removal on the basis of danger and risk to public health.
4. The Health and Safety Executive should revise the current ‘Duty to Manage’. The practice and evidence that has emerged in the last two decades shows that complexity works against compliance. In addition, raised awareness amongst duty holders and those working in premises containing asbestos is urgently required to strengthen compliance.
5. The Health and Safety Executive should amend guidance and risk assessments to take account of:
a) Early exposure (e.g. children in school and social housing)
b) Different levels of ‘in-situ’ risks (e.g. secondary schools and social housing double the risk; primary schools quadruple the risk)
c) The higher risks posed by Amosite and Crocidolite, to ensure they are properly acknowledged and accepted within the Health and Safety Executive’s risk assessment.
6. The Health and Safety Executive should accurately measure and represent fatality figures and the actual harm caused by asbestos exposure by:
a) Including all those who have died from mesothelioma over the age of 74 in occupational statistics
b) Including statistics for support staff who work in schools (caretakers, cleaners and secretaries, etc.)
c) Ensuring that, where death is attributable to mesothelioma, efforts are made to capture all past occupations, beyond that stated on the death certificate.
7. The Health and Safety Executive should assure (rather than assume) buildings are safe, through the requirement for periodic sensitive air monitoring based upon revised risk and priority assessment. The Health and Safety Executive, in line with the best international practice, should use electron microscopy to measure airborne fibres up to 0.0001 f/cm3. These tests should take place when the buildings are in use.
8. The Health and Safety Executive should improve the regime for reporting the disturbance of asbestos materials and ensure that the reporting regime in schools reflects that children are both:
a) At greater risk of harm due to exposure, and
b) Liable to disturb asbestos-containing materials.
9. Research funding bodies in the UK should consider the current gaps in the academic literature about the risk asbestos-containing materials pose in-situ, and particularly:
a) The degree of harm asbestos exposure causes in children compared to adults
b) The degree to which damaged asbestos poses an increased risk of fibre release and the methods that can be used to suppress this
c) The efficacy of contemporary legislation and where this legislation is sub-optimal.
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