The UKs Grim and Enduring Asbestos Legacy
As pressure grows on the UK government to take action on the deadly hazard posed by the countrys historic asbestos use,1 a half-hearted campaign by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) was announced. Whilst the stated objective of the HSE initiative was laudable to warn younger workers, particularly those in trades such as plastering and joinery, about the occupational hazard posed by asbestos material within the national infrastructure2 the continued denial of the need to eradicate the hazard by removing asbestos-containing material was lamentable: There is no known safe level of asbestos exposure but thats not to say it cant be managed safely, said the HSEs acting head of construction policy sector Tim Beaumont in a text announcing the launch of the Asbestos & You campaign this month.
The hidden presence of millions of tons of asbestos-containing material in schools, hospitals, industrial facilities, homes and elsewhere remains an imminent threat to members of the public as well as to tradespeople. According to evidence submitted to a Parliamentary enquiry on the Health and Safety Executives approach to asbestos management in 2022 of 128,761 buildings experts examined over a six-month period, 78% had asbestos And 71% of the asbestos items recorded in this report were damaged. The review concluded that: There is currently a high proportion of asbestos materials in UK buildings that could present a potential risk to public health.3
An April 2023 publication entitled: Asbestos in Public Buildings confirmed that about 87,000 public buildings still contain asbestos.4 The authors of the 16-page leaflet, UK legal experts well-versed in diverse aspects of asbestos litigation, warned that:
Asbestos thats not yet deemed harmful can quickly become dangerous once its disturbed or in a state of disrepair. The age of our public buildings and stretched maintenance budgets make it a huge concern. The data shows that asbestos remains a clear and present danger. It was deeply disappointing that the Government rejected the call put forward in April 2022, to set a 40-year deadline for its removal. While we understand the logistical and financial scale of the challenge to remove it safely, it simply cant be left in situ.
On April 5, 2023 a motion adopted by the annual conference of the National Education Union (NEU) called on the Government to prioritize the removal of asbestos from all UK schools. Commenting on the adoption of Motion 39, Joint General Secretary of the NEU Dr Mary Bousted said:
For decades the NEU and its predecessor unions have been highlighting the risks to children and staff of working in buildings riddled with asbestos and calling for a program of systematic phased removal of asbestos from all schools, starting with the most dangerous first. Since 1980 more than 400 school teaching professionals have died of mesothelioma in Britain, with 300 having died since 2001.5
A timely and tragic reminder of the price paid by Britons for the Governments asbestos apathy was the April 13, 2023 finding by assistant coroner Angela Brocklehurst that MP Alice Mahon had died from an industrial disease. Between 1987 and 2005, the Labour politician had represented Halifax at the House of Commons; she believed that she contracted malignant mesothelioma, the signature cancer related to asbestos exposure, from toxic exposures at Westminster. In her statement to the Court, the assistant coroner noted: She [Mahon] also referred to the Houses of Parliament being riddled with asbestos and believes she was exposed to that material while working there. Prior to becoming an MP, Mrs Mahon was an auxiliary nurse at Northowram Hospital where she worked inside the main building and in Nissen huts made from corrugated asbestos sheets.6
Yesterday, The Observer newspaper warned that unsafe schools and hospitals those still containing asbestos could still be putting staff at risk of cancer through contact with the material There have, Journalist Michael Savage wrote been 147 deaths among health and education workers since 2017. Experts believe the figure is likely to be a significant underestimate because of the way someones profession is recorded on death certificates.
Condemning the head-in-the-sand asbestos policy of the Tory Government, Liberal Democrat MP Munira Wilson said:
These devastating figures show the tragic human cost of years of under-investment in our school and hospital buildings No teacher or nurse should have to put their health at risk when they turn up to work each day. The government should be acting urgently to identify and remove asbestos from high-risk areas such as corridors and stairwells. Instead, schools are having to skip routine maintenance to balance the books. Each crumbling school and hospital stands as a concrete sign of years of Conservative neglect of our public services.7
A grassroots campaign started by Mesothelioma UK a national charity for anyone affected by mesothelioma is calling on the Government to adopt key recommendations made by the Parliamentary Work and Pensions Committee in 2022.8 Endorsing Mesothelioma UKs campaign Sir Stephen Timms MP, who oversaw the 2022 Parliamentary asbestos enquiry, said:
[Asbestos is] still in our buildings and causes over 5,000 deaths per year. This risk from asbestos will increase in coming decades, as we retrofit buildings to meet net zero targets. To prevent needless deaths and suffering, we need to act decisively, and finally make asbestos history. We need a central register so that we know where all the asbestos is and in what condition it is. We also need to set a timeframe for its safe removal, prioritising the highest risk asbestos from settings such as schools and hospitals. The clock is ticking.
Whilst the UK Government remains in denial about the consequences of its laissez-faire asbestos policy, the South Korean Government has set a 2027 deadline for the eradication of the asbestos hazard from all of its 11,946 elementary, middle and high schools, nearly half of which still contain asbestos.9 I wonder how Prime Minister Sunak would explain to a grieving British family why their loved one could not be protected from toxic exposures at school unlike his/her Korean counterpart.
April 17, 2023
1 Recent publications exploring the consequences of the governments failures to address the asbestos hazard were:
Savage, M. The tragic cost of under-investment: asbestos blamed for 150 deaths of school and hospital workers in England. April 16, 2023.
Bexhill: Concerns that Northeye camp for refugees contains asbestos. April 16, 2023.
Building industry workers lack asbestos awareness. April 12, 2023.
Plumbers warned of asbestos danger lurking in Britains buildings. April 11, 2023.
Meighan, C. Asbestos found in more than 1,700 schools across Scotland. April 9, 2023.
Quarmby K. The lingering asbestos threat in our social homes. April 3, 2023.
2 HSE. Asbestos & You campaign launched. April 6, 2023.
3 The Health and Safety Executives approach to asbestos management Report Summary. April 21, 2022.
4 Irwin Mitchell Law Firm. Asbestos in Public Building. April 2023.
5 NEU. The Dangers of Asbestos. April 5, 2023.
6 Deas, B. Bradford-born MP feared she was exposed to deadly asbestos in Houses of Parliament. April 13, 2023.
7 Savage, M. The tragic cost of under-investment: asbestos blamed for 150 deaths of school and hospital workers in England. April 16, 2023.
8 Mesothelioma UK. Dont let the Dust settle. April 2023.
9 Kazan-Allen, L. Eradicating the Asbestos Hazard from Koreas Schools. April 3, 2023.