According to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), more than 1.8 million people are annually exposed to asbestos and at least 5,000 people will be exposed each year by 2015. Asbestos awareness to the continuing deadly health risks of asbestosis and mesothelioma is, today, also being addressed as a ‘second’ or ‘third’ wave victim issue, affecting homeowners, tenants and especially, builders and demolition workers in the frontline of possible exposure.

We are frequently reminded of the risk of exposure to asbestos in the UK whenever a case is reported of building / demolition contractors uncovering asbestos containing materials (ACMS) at a school building, factory premises or housing estate. It is often forgotten that the first asbestos bans were not introduced until the 1980s and there is an estimated half a million properties around the UK still harbouring hazardous levels of ACMs.

Most recently, a firm of Cheltenham demolition contractors was prosecuted after exposing several of their workforce to a quantity of Asbestos Insulating Board (AIB) at a property in Gloucester. Although a prior management survey, which identified the hidden asbestos, was carried out as required under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006/12,  the removal of the deadly material was undertaken by the company themselves instead of an approved, licensed asbestos disposal contractor.

Unfortunately, this type of short sighted practice is reported nearly every week, whenever asbestos is found during property demolition or renovation. It is sometimes assumed that because white asbestos, which now tends to be the predominant type usually uncovered, is ‘low risk’, it may not be necessary to carry out the same containment and disposal procedures.

However, white asbestos is only graded as comparatively low risk because of its curly ‘serpentine’ fibres as opposed to the more deadly needle-like ‘amphibole’ fibres of previously banned amosite and crocidolite asbestos, which attach more firmly to cell tissue. White asbestos is still classified as a Group 1 Carcinogenic, and if found in a worn, fragile and disintegrating condition will easily release fibre dust when any attempt to handle is made.

As should be now well-known, once breathed in, the fibres inflame the lung linings, eventually leading to asbestosis disease or fatal, incurable mesothelioma cancer. However, the disease often develops in a period of between 15 to 50 years and asbestosis symptoms will only first appear at the latter stages.

While, “First Wave” victims of asbestos exposure concerns all those who originally were exposed from the 1940s onwards and during the peak years of asbestos use in UK industry, it is potential “Second” and “Third Wave’ victims who are now most at risk. Apart from homeowners and tenants, these include property clearance / demolition services and the various construction trades, such as builders, plumbers, electricians, plasterers and tilers, etc

The HSE have said that some 4,700 asbestos disease related deaths are still being recorded each year in the UK.