Tenth Anniversary of UK Asbestos Ban
On August 24, 1999, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott brought the asbestos century to an end when he signed The Asbestos (Prohibitions) (Amendment) Regulations 1999.1 Although the Labour Government had indicated that it would act swiftly to implement legislation banning the use of all types of asbestos when it came to power, it took two years for it to do so. The delay had much to do with pressure from global asbestos stakeholders led by the (Canadian) Asbestos Institute and fears of becoming embroiled in the case at the World Trade Organization brought by the Canadian Government over the French asbestos ban. However, sufficient courage was found and one month after the European Union had adopted legislation banning asbestos, the UK mandated a 3-month phase-out of asbestos use.2
Unlike festivities engendered by other anniversaries, this one brought with it a larger dose of regret than celebration. Hugh Robertson of the TUC expressed it thus:
Although the ban on the import and use of asbestos was a great step forward, we must not forget that the delay in introducing a ban cost thousands of lives that might have been spared if asbestos had been outlawed when the risks were first known. Had the industry not tried to distort facts and suppress evidence, there is little doubt that action would have been taken much quicker.
On the occasion of the 10th anniversary, we must remember that the asbestos ban has not made the problem go away; we still have millions of buildings that contain this killer fibre. It is vital that workers and the public are protected from hazardous exposures and that when asbestos is removed it is done safely.3
According to the latest available figures (2006), the annual number of British deaths from the asbestos cancer mesothelioma is 2,056; this compares to 312 (1976), 706 (1986) and 1,322 in 1996. The 2006 figure represents more than a six-fold increase in fatalities in 40 years.4 The outlook remains bleak:
Mortality amongst all males is expected to keep increasing, reaching a peak at around 2,040 deaths in the year 2016, with a rapid decline following the peak year. Around 91,000 deaths are predicted to occur by 2050 with around 61,000 of these occurring from 2007 onwards.5
When mesothelioma deaths amongst women and deaths from asbestosis are added to fatalities caused by cancers of the lung, larynx, ovary and stomach,6 the huge price being paid for the country's failure to act on the asbestos danger becomes apparent. In the years since the UK banned asbestos, thousands have died. It is a cause of tremendous regret that the authorities did not heed warnings from asbestos victims, campaigners, doctors and trade unionists and take action decades earlier.
Although the national ban was indeed a life-saving achievement, much of the population remains at risk from asbestos products contained within 1.5 million public buildings and 95% of social housing. More in sadness then in celebration, Michael Clapham MP and Chair of the Parliamentary Asbestos Sub-Committee reflected:
Despite the irrefutable scientific evidence which convinced authorities in industrialized countries to ban asbestos, producers are still exporting 2 million tonnes every year to the developing world where it causes disability and death and adds to world poverty.is years since the UN, recognizing the serious health implications of asbestos use, called for restrictions on global trade.is appropriate to mark the 10th anniversary of the UK ban by reaffirming our commitment to the campaign for a worldwide ban.7
1 These regulations came into force on November 24, 1999, five years ahead of the European deadline. Chrysotile (white asbestos) had been the only type of asbestos permitted in the UK since amosite and crocidolite were banned in 1985. Statutory Instrument No. 2373 banned the import of crude fiber, flake, powder or waste chrysotile and the new use of asbestos cement, boards, panels, tiles and other products. Chrysotile-containing products installed prior to November 24, 1999 could remain in place until they reached the end of their service life. The sale of second-hand asbestos cement products and building materials with asbestos-containing coatings was forbidden.
Kazan-Allen. L. United Kingdom Bans Chrysotile. British Asbestos Newsletter, Issue 36: Autumn 1999.
3 Private communication. September 11, 2009.
4 Table MESO 01 - Death certificates mentioning mesothelioma 1968-2006.
5 Table MESO 02 - Death certificates for males mentioning mesothelioma by year of death and 5-year age group. http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/tables/meso02.htm
6 At an IARC meeting in March 2009, experts found sufficient evidence available to show that asbestos also causes cancer of the larynx and of the ovary. [The Lancet. May 2009;10]. In a recently published paper, British researchers presented evidence of an association between asbestos exposure and mortality from stomach cancer and strokes.
7 Email received on September 15, 2009 from Michael Clapham MP.