An overwhelming number of cases reporting on the discovery of asbestos in a public premises, such as a school or hospital almost always refer to the insulation found lining a boiler and the “lagging” around the accompanying pipework.

Unfortunately, many of the cases suggest a continuing lack of asbestos awareness or a real understanding of the potential health risks involved in properly dealing with the material.

In a recent case, a builder and licensed asbestos removal firm was found to have sold a boiler containing asbestos insulation, which they had recently removed from a hospital.

From the 1940s until the late 1970s, asbestos imports into the UK increased from 124,000 tons to around 180,000 tons every year. Between 55 per cent and 100 per cent of asbestos fibres were widely used in the manufacture of thermal insulation of pipes, boilers and heating plants for public buildings and system-built housing.

Health hazard hidden in original boiler rooms

Even thirty years after the first UK ban in 1985, the potential fatal health hazard can still be found hidden in the original boiler rooms in basements and outhouses of many public buildings across Britain. It would be reasonable to expect that trade firms directly involved in asbestos removal work would be fully trained, aware and compliant with the regulations to control the removal and safe disposal of asbestos containing materials.

Unfortunately, the failings of those firms to follow the procedures are also regularly reported. Hazardous practices range from breaking up asbestos onsite by hand and allowing fibre dust to become airborne and spreading contamination to not properly removing asbestos in double sealed bags and securing in lockable skips for disposal at authorised waste disposal stations.

The problems of asbestos fly-tipping by often unlicensed firms are well-known. However, it is still shocking to hear that it was a so-called asbestos removal contractor who had sold two boilers, one of which was found to contain asbestos, to a company in the business of hiring out boilers. The court found the company had breached Regulation 11(2) of the REACH Enforcement Regulations 2008 and fined £,466 inc. costs.

Under REACH ( Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals Regulation EC No 1907/2006, asbestos fibres, and items which have asbestos intentionally added  cannot legally be placed on the market or made available, whether in return for payment or free of charge, at any point in a supply chain.

Rise of prosecutions

The case comes at a time when asbestos training providers are warning that the rise of prosecutions brought by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) indicates that “adequate training in safety management is being ignored.” According to recent HSE estimates, an average of 20 tradesmen will lose their lives every week to mesothelioma cancer due to asbestos exposure.

The continuing presence of asbestos still presents misunderstanding and confusion. Builders and tradesmen can simply underestimate the potential dangers. Building owners or local authorities “forget” there is asbestos in their properties and fail to properly manage the risk.

A survey conducted by HSE as recently as 2014 found many tradesmen possessed a poor knowledge of asbestos and where it may be still found. While more than five in ten tradesmen who were questioned said they were aware that asbestos containing materials can still be found in properties built before 1970, fewer than two in ten said they knew that a property built up to 2000 may also contain asbestos.

30 per cent of asbestos containing materials

According to The Great British Asbestos in Buildings Survey 2011, only one in six of building maintenance contractors said they possessed asbestos training qualifications and just one in eight claimed to have a good working knowledge or qualifications in asbestos.

Construction industry organisations have repeatedly said that any property built or renovated up until 2000 is liable to contain up to 30 per cent of asbestos containing materials. In residential premises, asbestos could be present by up to 10 per cent of cement panel ceilings and in outbuildings, and at least 5 per cent in fire protection materials, including the underside of garage roofs and boiler cupboard enclosures.

Current European studies of occupational exposure to asbestos in a 35 year period up to 2009 found that the incidence of mesothelioma was high among those who worked with some form of asbestos-containing insulation.