It may be a little known fact but there are still some categories of asbestos-containing products, still allowed to be purchased or “transferred” in the UK public domain, which as recently as July 2013, also included a large-scale, historical item.

From as early as the 1920s, growing asbestos awareness to the long term health risks that asbestosis and mesothelioma seriously posed to workers in asbestos-using industries, such as manufacturing, construction and shipbuilding only saw the first limited legislation introduced just over a decade later.

It wasn’t until 1985 that the first asbestos mineral fibres were banned from being incorporated into insulation and fireproofing materials and products. However, the prohibition only extended to the most dangerous asbestos types – brown amosite and blue crocidolite.

A third type – white chrysotile – continued to be used, most notably in the building and vehicle assembly industries in products ranging from wallboard and roof sheeting to sprayed texture coatings, pipe lagging, electrical fuse boxes and vehicle brake pads. White asbestos was still allowed to be used as recently as 1999 when its import was finally halted and a complete ban enforced by EU directive in January 2005.

Second hand asbestos-containing products

However, the EU legislation, known as REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) also contained an exemption clause to allow the “placing on the market” of second hand asbestos-containing products, provided they were first put into service before 2005 and a high level of health protection would be maintained.

World War Two gas masks

The products mostly involve cultural/heritage objects but also include collector items exchanged and traded in the public domain. Among the many products known to contain asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) in the form of filters are World War Two gas masks, which are in circulation for sale online and at trade fairs specialising in military memorabilia. In addition, there are likely to still be a number of gas masks stored away and forgotten about in attics, basements or garages in homes belonging to men or women who originally used them as young children.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) not only are the masks a health hazard but the sale of such items is also prohibited by REACH. HSE is presently trying to determine the scale of the problem (including estimating the number and type of gas mask that may contain asbestos).

HSE is currently working with DEFRA – who have overall policy responsibility for enforcing REACH legislation – to assume greater powers to issue exemptions, which would allow asbestos containing items to be transferred between owners in specific circumstances, provided strict measures can be guaranteed to protect against risks to health. DEFRA currently plans to introduce the necessary legislation in October 2013.

Steam Train display

In the meantime, HSE is dealing with specific requests for transfer (of heritage items, etc) on a case-by-case basis.

A recent example involves the July 2013 celebration of the 75th anniversary of the world speed record for a steam train achieved by the A4 class ‘Mallard’ locomotive.

The National Railway Museum in York planned to display the last six remaining locomotives of the A4 Class, two of which were installed in the USA.

HSE ensured that work was undertaken to remove some asbestos, and encapsulate the remainder, before the locomotives were transported to the UK. On arrival, further work was carried out to ensure that the remaining asbestos had not been disturbed in transit and any necessary remedial work was carried out to ensure the locomotives were safe for display.