The raising of asbestos awareness, especially since the first Asbestos Regulations of 1969, which simply aimed to ‘manage asbestos contact’, and the evolution of legislation to adequately control and, ultimately, prohibit the use of the white chrysotile form of the hazardous material in 1999, has always been slow and contested every step of the way.
Even in 2011, the UK has been reproached by the EU for not complying with European Asbestos Directive 2009/148/EC. The guidance addresses the issue of “sporadic and low intensity exposure to asbestos” rather than focusing on measuring the extent of exposure and risk that may occur while handling asbestos-containing materials, such as decorative coatings or ‘good condition’ encapsulated asbestos fibre material, as found in types of floor tiles.
For most of the twentieth century, asbestos was simply seen by the manufacturing, engineering and construction industries, as an abundant, inexpensive and highly effective heat insulator and fire retardant right up to the 1980s and even the 1990s. The legacy of decades of continued exposure to the deadly asbestos fibre dust by thousands of industrial and factory assembly workers from the north of England to the south coast shipyards continues to this day.
The long gestation period of between 15 – 50 years from first breathing in the deadly asbestos dust often means that the first mesothelioma or asbestosis symptoms do not emerge until at an advanced stage of the disease. Invariably, the survival rate tends to be around 12 months and it is estimated that some 2,000 victims still die of mesothelioma every year.
Use of the extremely lethal forms of asbestos, i.e. crocidolite (blue asbestos) and amosite (brown asbestos), was not banned until the 1985 UK Asbestos (Prohibition) Regulations. However, chrysotile ( white asbestos) continued to be used in the construction industry until The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations began to limit its’ use from 1992 onwards until definitive Regulations were issued in 2006.
In a response to the EU complaint, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has confirmed plans to begin a public consultation process in late summer 2011, which will look at upgrading the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006. There has consistently been a degree of non-acceptance of the low level risk of ‘contained’ white asbestos when found in premises built or renovated up until to the 1980s and beyond, even when the material was finally banned from UK use in 1999.
According to Sir John Beddington, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, “ … it is not possible to determine a threshold level below which exposure to ‘pure’ chrysotile could be deemed ‘safe’ for human health. The same applies for exposure to chrysotile from cement … on the evidence available there is no justification for an imminent change to the international scientific consensus on the classification of chrysotile as a Class 1 carcinogen.”