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Marking National Asbestos Awareness Day

You may wonder why we need to mark this day, today. Wasn’t asbestos phased out decades ago? Surely it’s no longer a problem?

Asbestos is such a versatile mineral that it was used in products as diverse as cigarette filters, mattresses and Artex, but more commonly to provide insulation and fire protection in construction and manufacturing. Although imports and use of asbestos in the UK peaked in the 1960s and 70s, as it was not banned in the UK until 1999 and so it is still in many buildings.

It is not surprising, therefore, that those working in construction – electricians, plumbers, joiners and others, are considered to be most at risk of being exposed to asbestos fibres and of developing asbestos-related illnesses, including mesothelioma.

The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 imposed additional responsibilities on owners of non-domestic premises, who have a “duty to manage” the asbestos in them and to protect anyone using or working in the premises form the risks to health that exposure to asbestos poses. Under the current regime:

  • existing asbestos materials can remain in situ provided they are in good condition and not disturbed.
  • If any building or other maintenance work is to be done on premises or equipment which may contain asbestos, the location, type and condition of the asbestos need to be identified and the risks assessed, managed and controlled.
  • In most cases, removal of asbestos needs to be done by licensed contractors and any removal work needs effective controls to ensure exposure is absolutely minimised and there is a greater requirement to document and report such work to the authorities
  • training is mandatory for anyone who may be exposed to asbestos at work and there is a greater emphasis on health monitoring

In spite of these controls, many workers are still being exposed to asbestos fibres needlessly, particularly when working in domestic premises. Within the past few weeks I have been contacted by four people who were concerned about their health due to the presence of asbestos in their rented homes or gardens or, where it was being removed, about the manner of removal and an apparent lack of control measures or concern for their safety.

Asbestos is said to be responsible for 5,000 deaths per annum in the UK. Numbers of those who will develop mesothelioma are still on the increase and are not now expected to peak until 2020. These deaths are the result of past asbestos exposure. However, as long as asbestos remains in our buildings and housing, the risk to workers and occupants remains. Hence, the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK is campaigning for a national programme to eradicate asbestos from all buildings in the UK, so that asbestos-related deaths do truly belong to the past.

If you have any worries at all about asbestos exposure where you work or live, I would urge you to contact HSE or your local Environmental Health Department. If you have health concerns due to past asbestos exposure – don’t delay, consult your GP.