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Asbestos Removal And The UK Net Zero Strategy: An Ongoing Conflict?

Climate change is a prevalent concern that is finally being addressed transparently by the UK Government for the protection of future generations, industries and the environment.

It is a direct consequence of human activity and its damaging impact, according to the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, includes global warming, greater risk of flooding, droughts and heat waves. In order to end our contribution to the climate crisis, the UK government is driving the Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener.

Working together to ensure a legacy of the past (and present) is not carried into the future is imperative and a motive that should also ring true of the UK’s asbestos legacy. Our specialist asbestos team at Hodge Jones & Allen know only too well the devastating effects of historic asbestos use and how prevention to exposure, much like reversing climate change, is the only dependable cure to preventing deaths from asbestos-related disease.

What is Net Zero?

The release of greenhouse gas emissions, from burning fossil fuels, is increasing global temperatures. In simple terms, Net Zero is described by the United Nations as cutting greenhouse gas emissions to as close as zero as possible – with any remainder re-absorbed by the atmosphere through natural sinks such as oceans and forests.

The UK has set a binding target to reach net zero emissions by 2050, some 28 years from now.

How is the UK’s asbestos legacy linked to Net Zero?

A significant part of the government’s published Net Zero strategy is focused upon Energy Efficiency Retrofits; whereby existing buildings will be renovated to reduce energy consumption and therefore emissions that are released into the atmosphere. This revamping can include simple improvements such as more building fabric insulation, right through to a mass re-construction project.

Of course, a re-construction project is much more threatening in respect of high asbestos disturbance but the fundamental principle of contact with asbestos is that no amount of asbestos exposure is considered safe. Retrofitting will inevitably ‘un-mask’ previously undisturbed asbestos materials that have not been principally targeted for their safe removal.
This leaves the likes of builders, fitters and general occupants of a building in a difficult and dangerous situation.

Asbestos is classified as a category 1 carcinogen by Public Health England; in simple terms, its toxicity causes cancer in humans. Its hazardous reputation is for good reason as asbestos fibres are often invisible to the naked eye. Once in circulation, disturbed asbestos dust and fibres can remain airborne for up to 3 days and therefore can be easily inhaled and cause damage to the airway and lungs of anyone in that area.

At the time of its mass production and widespread use between the 1950s and 1970s, asbestos was praised for its insulating and fire-proof properties. But, that profit is a very distant memory now. We are instead faced with the unsettling evidence that asbestos is responsible for more than two-thirds of cancer deaths within the construction industry and is responsible for illnesses such as mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and pleural thickening. This detriment is not only relevant to direct recipients but also their loved ones through secondary exposure from clothing, hair and close contact.

Within the UK, the importation, supply and use of asbestos was banned in 1999 – but it is ever-present in many buildings built or refurbished before 2000. By the 1960s, it was common knowledge that exposure to asbestos, even in small amounts, could cause the contraction of mesothelioma – in fact, it was front page news of the Sunday Times in October 1965.

With so much present-day awareness and a debt of justice still owed to asbestos victims and their families, it is frightening to think that the overhaul of old properties, in partnership with the Net Zero initiative, could see a risk to worker safety, an increase in asbestos-related illness and ultimately, a rise in annual UK deaths.

Must the public continue to pay the price for past failings of the asbestos industry and the Factory Inspectorate (precursor to HSE)? No, they should not. All parties knew then about the dangers of asbestos and undoubtedly know of its fatal consequences now – the time to act against the UK’s asbestos legacy, another consequence of historic human activity, is here and now.

Protecting the public against Asbestos Exposure

As the move towards Net Zero accelerates, the risk to public health will only increase as retrofitting is prioritised. The recent report from the Work and Pensions Committee indicates that cumulative exposures are now much lower for younger age groups. With asbestos present in approximately 300,000 non-domestic buildings, the Committee asserts that reliance on the current UK asbestos regulations is simply not enough. Responsibility cannot rest with building owners and maintenance companies; change must come from the bodies above with influence and funding. The Committee concluded therefore that a system-wide and cross-government strategy for the long-term removal of asbestos must be implemented.

The asbestos clock is always ticking, and along with it the increased need for safer removal of asbestos, increased funding for qualified removal companies and a directory that prioritises higher risk settings such as schools – 75% of which still contain asbestos materials. MPs are pressing for the government to commit to a long-term approach that will see asbestos removed from all public and commercial buildings within the next 40 years – a target of 2062. In theory, the 40-year deadline presents a beacon of hope, even though it is many years away.

Unfortunately, the Government’s response to the Committee’s sixth report of Session 2021 – 2022 rejected the Committee’s key time limit. They professed the risk of exposure as very low where asbestos can be managed safely in situ until planned refurbishment works; arguing instead that a fixed deadline for asbestos removal would increase the opportunity for exposure. All asbestos materials are at least over two decades old, if not considerably older, and are susceptible to degradation no matter how enclosed, maintained or undisturbed they may be. The exposure sought to be avoided is already happening, if not being encouraged by the drive towards energy efficient buildings.

For now, the responsibility of the UK’s asbestos legacy appears weighted towards the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), who are missing ample funding to facilitate this increased work load, and building owners of their own accord. This will not be sufficient, even short-term, to protect the public’s health.

How can Net Zero and Asbestos Removal be reconciled?

Every person can take action to contribute towards the Net Zero goal and reverse some of the damage already done to the planet. But avoiding exposure to asbestos is predicted to become more and more difficult, with the product itself only safely removed by professionals due to its lethal properties.

Just as climate change affects every individual, asbestos does not discriminate as to who it targets. In fact, the demographic of those suffering from asbestos-related disease is no longer limited to men who worked in the post-World War II building industry; female deaths caused by mesothelioma have risen by 7% since 2020 according to the asbestos-related disease statistics of Great Britain 2022.

In most situations, ‘everyone can make a difference’, but this approach cannot be taken with asbestos. The devastating repercussions from asbestos exposure are often all too late to be reversed once someone is aware of its danger and any subsequent respiratory problems. The long latency period between asbestos exposure and display of symptoms is why HSE have dubbed asbestos as the ‘hidden killer’.

The government’s stance towards the UK’s asbestos legacy is not sustainable, nor has it been for a long time. The most promising solution moving forward is to incite more support from the government to continue encouraging carbon neutral renovations, whilst equally supporting the affordability of contractors who will obey asbestos regulations and ensure asbestos is removed safely and disposed of correctly. The allure of using cheaper contractors, who may fall short of the required safety standards, may be tempting from a business viewpoint. However, with the right amount of financial support and promotion of safe standards, businesses and contractors can be encouraged to do the right thing, the right way and help keep everyone safe and healthy. If workers cannot be protected, how then can the planet be kept safe?

Both the Net Zero and 40-year asbestos removal strategy are evidently intrinsically linked so why not engender an overlapping strategy? A united front could see both initiatives tackled in partnership, or at least working alongside one another, as opposed to running on separate tracks entirely. The discovery of asbestos affects the very efficiency of retrofitting operations, whereby asbestos removal will lead to unwanted time delays, shutdowns and potential demolitions. If asbestos removal was instead viewed as a requirement of retrofitting, rather than an obstacle, the two birds could be tackled with one stone. Through this lens, it is easy to envision asbestos removal as fixated with the same target year of 2050. Yet, all that is asked for is a deadline in itself, that the Government will calculate confronting the UK’s asbestos legacy as a top priority, not just a side project. Asbestos still remains the single largest cause of industrial fatalities in the UK.

What can be done to help now?

To counteract the heavy burden of asbestos-related deaths, an engaged shift towards safe removal of asbestos-containing materials, greater awareness of the health implications posed by asbestos exposure and vital funding for treatment research are all steps that need to be taken sooner rather than later.

Only a meticulous approach will be enough to protect the UK from asbestos fibres, pollutants and any other devastating legacies and perhaps reverse some of the damage already done.

If you have recently been exposed to asbestos, we recommend the exposure is documented in your medical records, to ensure there is reliable information in your medical records should you develop an asbestos-related illness in the future. As asbestos diseases usually take many decades to develop, details of the exposure to asbestos can be forgotten if not recorded at the time of exposure.

If you require legal advice in relation to seeking compensation for an asbestos disease you are suffering from, or are considering making a claim for a loved one who has passed away from an asbestos disease, please contact our specialist and dedicated Asbestos & Mesothelioma Compensation Team on 0808 271 9413 for confidential and expert advice. They treat every client as an individual and strive to take away the worry of a legal claim.