Two recently reported asbestos-related incidents, although unrelated, reveal once again the continuing dangers of unexpected yet all too-easy contact with the potentially life-threatening material.

The Health and Safety Executive state that more than 1.8 million people at risk of asbestos exposure and at least 2,000 cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed each year. Arguably, it is schools, council estates, former factory grounds and waste landfill sites that are known for posing the most prevalent risk of environmental exposure.

Increased asbestos awareness of its widespread use as insulation in the construction industry until the late 1970s and early 80s has led to an estimate that there could still be half a million or more industrial/ commercial buildings with asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) present.

Apart from the most well-known industrial locations where asbestos was commonly used, such as shipyards, textile, railway and vehicle workshops, quantities of asbestos dust have also been reported found in a variety of premises, from paper mills, foundries, power plants, hospitals and medical labs to libraries, restaurants, retail stores and offices.

High temperature environment

While it is known that ACMs were regularly used by the building industry, it was always likely that high temperature environments would have been specifically installed with asbestos insulation / fireproofing. It may not be that unexpected that a Bolton town centre bakery, which was damaged in a recent blaze was found to contain small quantities of asbestos dust by fire investigators.

Under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006/12, the premises remained closed until authorised contractors completely removed the fibre dust amounts discovered. A statement was released stating that “no risk was posed to staff or customers prior to the fire.”

However, the accepted official guidelines are that all asbestos must be considered a Class 1 carcinogenic and, therefore, potentially dangerous. Evaluation of a health risk should always be dependent upon whether the fibre dust has been released into the air, the particles inhaled and the length of continued exposure time.

Fly-tipped asbestos

A second example where it seems a similar lack of clarity over asbestos risk may have been demonstrated took place when a father saw his daughter ride her bike into fly-tipped asbestos waste in South London. Despite immediately contacting the local council the father was informed that, “ resources were stretched and a team would dispose of it as soon as possible.”

In a subsequent statement, a council spokesman said that the “ fly-tip had been inspected, confirmed as being asbestos, passed to our specialist asbestos removal contractor, and will be removed as soon as possible as all such waste is.”

Illegal fly-tipping is a common practice, which has risen by more than 60 per cent in recent years, and invariably includes broken up asbestos sheeting amongst the waste materials. The subsequent cost of removal and proper disposal by local authorities can be between £100 – £150 million every year. However, exposed asbestos materials can easily release fibre dust particles into the surrounding atmosphere, and requires urgent action to for the contaminated area to be sealed and the materials immediately removed.

‘Duty of Care’ to manage waste

Misunderstanding can still surround the discovery of asbestos and how to correctly manage, dispose and protect against exposure. In a number of cases, property owners or builders imagine that any risk is minimal and may decide to avoid additional time and expense by simply removing any asbestos without observing the obligatory protection or disposal procedures.

Section 34 of the Environmental Protection Act directly places businesses under a ‘Duty of Care’ to manage their waste in a proper and legal manner. It is also an offence to store controlled waste without the appropriate licence with penalties of up to £50,000 and a prison sentence of up to 12 months being imposed at a Magistrates Court or a prison term of up to five years and a fine at Crown Court.