The Government acknowledges that buildings in the UK, including public buildings, contain asbestos. It also acknowledges that thousands of people a year die from asbestos-related diseases. However, exactly how big is the problem and what is the Government and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) doing about it?
According to the HSE, any building built or refurbished before 2000 may have asbestos so can cause a health risk. A UK-wide ban on the use of asbestos came into force in 1999 so the assumption is anything built in subsequent years should not contain this deadly material.
Of course, the above timeline includes many public buildings as most were built before 2000. This includes schools, hospitals, museums, administrative buildings, and more.
As a result, the scale of the UK’s asbestos problem is enormous:
- There is thought to be six million tonnes of asbestos in the UK, most of which is in buildings.
- Experts believe as many as 1.5 million UK buildings have asbestos. They won’t all be public buildings, but many will be.
- Research by the BBC found that almost all hospitals in London have asbestos.
- Studies have found asbestos is present in over 75 percent of English schools.
The Impact of Asbestos
The Government and the HSE agree asbestos causes more than 5,500 deaths a year. This includes about 2,600 mesothelioma deaths a year. Mesothelioma is a deadly cancer caused by asbestos which has no known cure.
Also, according to a 2014 University of Glasgow study, Scotland has the highest rates of mesothelioma in the world.
Figures also show direct correlations between asbestos in public buildings and deaths. As an example, take the information above that asbestos is present in almost every hospital in London. That information becomes even starker when you learn that since 2011, around 1,000 Londoners have died from mesothelioma. Seven of those were either doctors or nurses.
In addition, one London NHS Trust, Guy’s and St Thomas’, paid £1.3 million in asbestos compensation between 2001 and 2016.
There are also figures that connect asbestos in schools with UK-wide asbestos deaths. For example, the National Union of Teachers believes over 300 teachers have died as a result of mesothelioma since 1980. Of course, if teachers are dying because of asbestos in schools, so are children. The Government’s own All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Health and Safety reported that “Over 140 school teachers have died from mesothelioma in the past ten years. An unknown number of cleaners, admin staff and caretakers have also died. The number of children who have died as a result of exposure to asbestos while at school is unknown but evidence given to the Education Select Committee hearing on asbestos in schools estimated that up to 300 people a year could subsequently die from their asbestos exposure as a child at school.”
This is an ongoing issue, not something that stopped at some point in the past. I was exposed, you were exposed, your children are being exposed right now.
Asbestos Management vs Eradication
The current policy in the UK is to ‘manage’ asbestos where it is present rather than working to quickly eradicate it from buildings. This management policy includes public buildings.
The duty to manage involves finding out where asbestos is present, taking steps to avoid disturbing it, removing it if it is disturbed, removing it during renovations, and removing it during demolition.
This policy will, eventually, lead to the eradication of asbestos from buildings in the UK, but it will take a very long time – lifetimes, in fact.
The ‘management’ policy is in place because the HSE believes the risk is “negligible” if asbestos remains undamaged and is not disturbed.
The problem with this position is that the HSE’s ‘disturbed’ relates to some kind of facilities work being performed and does not take into account day-to-day activities which, themselves, can disturb asbestos. For example, pinning work to walls in a classroom can release 6,000 fibres and it only takes one to kill you.
So, what about eradication? This seems like a straightforward solution, i.e. asbestos is deadly so the best approach is to remove it. There are knock-on effects of an eradication policy, however:
- Cost – of course, a person’s life, general health, and safety should not be determined by a cost projection. Also, keeping asbestos in-situ is likely to cost more in terms of the public health impact over the longer term. That said, a large scheme to remove asbestos from public buildings would be costly and that money would have to come from somewhere.
- Practicality – buildings would have to be fully or partially closed to facilitate the removal of asbestos. This would present significant logistical challenges, especially for buildings like hospitals.
- Exposure during the removal and disposal process – there is much better knowledge now concerning the safe removal and disposal of asbestos. In other words, when contractors follow best practice, the risk of exposure is minimal. There is no way of predicting, however, what will happen during a major eradication programme. Standards could slip, accidents can happen, and negligence can occur.
- Background asbestos – even when you remove asbestos from a building, background levels can remain for around four months. These background levels pose a risk to anyone using the building.
- Asbestos can be part of the structure – in some situations, asbestos is part of the main structure of the building making removal without full or partial demolition almost impossible.
So, an asbestos eradication programme is not a simple solution. It is not beyond human capacity to overcome these problems, however, particularly considering the risk of asbestos exposure in public buildings that we all currently face.
Current Legislative and Regulatory Position
What is the Government doing now? An all-party parliamentary group recently looked at the issue of asbestos in buildings. It reported in 2015 and recommended legislation to speed up the removal of asbestos from all UK buildings, i.e. to move from a policy of management to one of active removal. The group even put target dates: it wanted asbestos removed from all public buildings by 2028.
The Government has yet to act on these recommendations so all public buildings (as well as other buildings) must adhere to the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, i.e. managing asbestos rather than proactively removing it.
The HSE carried out a review of these regulations and published its findings in March 2017.
Its recommendation to the Government is that it is not necessary to substantially change the current regulations. In other words, its recommendation is to continue with a policy of asbestos management rather than asbestos removal. It came to this conclusion after looking at “collective stakeholder evidence, cost/benefit analysis, epidemiological and enforcement data”.
So, the status quo will remain. Of course, this isn’t a problem exclusive to the current administration – successive governments over many years have failed to fully and finally deal with the UK’s asbestos problem.
All this does, however, is leave the problem for future generations to deal with. In the meantime, people continue to die and continue to contract asbestos-related diseases. Sooner rather than later, the country needs a different approach.