A group of MPs is calling for all public and commercial buildings to be completely free from asbestos within a 40-year timeframe.
According to the influential Work and Pensions Select Committee, the substance is the single greatest cause of British work-related deaths, with more than 5,000 occurring in 2019 alone.
While recent decades have seen concerted efforts to rid structures of the potentially deadly material, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has said that asbestos could linger in some 300,000 non-domestic buildings, as well as in numerous homes.
At the moment, the UK has no deadline in place for ridding either dwellings or public structures of the fibres, which are carcinogenic and can lead to cancer (among other serious lung problems) when inhaled.
But now the Work and Pensions Select Committee is calling on the government to issue a clear way forward for asbestos removal within the next four decades. It described the related deaths as among ‘the great workplace tragedies of modern times’.
Current laws state that asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) can be left where they are, provided they are in reasonable condition and likely to remain undamaged.
However, the cross-party group of MPs said that a new shift towards retrofitting buildings – in which new systems aimed at high energy efficiency and low energy consumption are fitted to buildings previously built without them – meant that removing asbestos had become a more urgent issue.
The committee’s report noted that more ACMs would be likely to be disturbed in the years and decades ahead. It also said the government should work with the HSE to devise a strategy for clearing asbestos from non-residential structures by 2062. It added that work should begin with the highest-risk settings, such as schools, to ‘focus minds’.
Among the other things the MPs are calling for is a digital register of asbestos presence in public structures, a multi-media campaign encouraging building owners to change their behaviour and more inspection and enforcement activity to boost compliance with current asbestos regulations. For example, in the UK, the law on asbestos (Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012) means all commercial premises built pre-1999 must have an asbestos management plan.
The Health and Safety Executive has said it would respond to the committee report ‘in due course’.
What is asbestos and when is it harmful?
Asbestos occurs naturally and is a fibrous silicate mineral. Its six varieties all comprise long, thin fibrous crystals, while each fibre is made up of numerous microscopic ‘fibrils’ which can be released into the atmosphere when disturbed.
At one time, asbestos was widely used in UK construction as an insulating, flooring and roofing material. The government of the day banned its use in new buildings in 1999.
Asbestos isn’t harmful if left undisturbed. But if ACMs are disturbed, a fine dust is released containing the deadly fibres. When breathed in, these can get into the lungs, damaging them over time and leading to asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma, pleural disease and other conditions. Symptoms often don’t appear until decades after first exposure.
Public places where asbestos is commonly found
Asbestos can be found in just about any industrial or residential structure built or refurbished pre-2000, and it’s present in numerous commonly found building materials. Here are some of the places it’s commonly found:
- According to a BBC survey, nine out of 10 NHS hospitals have asbestos – 198 are aware of its presence at their site
- More than 75% of Britain’s state schools contain asbestos (Source: All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Health and Safety)
- Large office buildings
- Factories plus chemical and power plants
- Tower blocks and skyscrapers
- Agricultural structures
- Churches and community centres
The stuff is essentially found in numerous places from sprayed coatings to water tanks, lagging, cisterns, floor tiling and even textiles such as fire blankets.
The long-term risks of leaving asbestos in place
As mentioned, asbestos is not considered hazardous if in good condition and left undisturbed. But if the material is disturbed, due to refurbishment, retrofitting or for any other reason, you risk releasing the lethal fibres which can then be inhaled.
The Work and Pensions Select Committee said that while ‘extreme exposure’ was less likely now than previously, the risks were likely to escalate in the future. Which is why action is needed sooner rather than later.