A renewed call has been made for definitive action to finally deal with the presence of asbestos, which still remains throughout many of Britain’s public buildings and places of work. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health has released a new report, which emphasises the need to introduce comprehensive measures for a planned removal of all asbestos still remaining in every property in Britain.

Asbestos awareness and the issue of hazardous insulation materials still hidden or failing to be correctly managed in millions of UK properties, including more than 75 per cent of schools, is arguably one of the longest-running and needs to be tackled, once and for all. Thirty years have passed since the use of asbestos was banned in the UK, yet the number of mesothelioma deaths has risen by more than 10.6 per cent from 2,291 in 2011 to 2,535 in 2012, according to the latest Health and Safety Executive (HSE) report, June 2014.

Current measures unsatisfactory

In July 2014, the European Economic and Social Committee put forward a proposal, entitled “Freeing The EU From Asbestos”, which recommended the “total removal of all used asbestos and all asbestos containing products”, and was to be a “priority target of the European Union.” The World Health Organisation says there are between 20,000 and 30,000 cases of asbestos-related diseases reported every year in the EU alone, and more than 300,000 citizens are expected to die from mesothelioma by 2030 in the EU. To date, Poland is the only EU country to have established a nation-wide programme for the removal of all their existing asbestos by 2030.

The new report from the Parliamentary Group puts forward its belief that the current measures for managing asbestos in the workplace is unsatisfactory and will never protect individuals from a potential health risk. A new law on asbestos is needed, which sets out a realistic timetable for the removal of asbestos from every single workplace in Britain by 2035.

The decisive action called for includes:

  • Asbestos surveys:

A full asbestos survey to be carried out in all commercial, public, and rented domestic premises by a registered consultant, which clearly states whether asbestos containing materials are present, where it is located and its condition. The survey is to be completed no later than 2022 and must be registered with the HSE.

  • Where asbestos is found:

All refurbishment, repair or remedial work should include the removal of the asbestos. Where no such work takes place immediately, the duty-holder must develop and put into place a plan which ensures that all asbestos is completely removed by no later than 2035. In the case of public buildings and educational establishments, such as schools, there is an earlier deadline for complete asbestos removal by 2028.

  • Compliance checks:

The HSE, local authorities and other enforcing agencies must develop a programme of workplace inspections to check that all asbestos containing materials are identified, properly marked and managed. Asbestos removal must include an acceptable timescale as part of the plan. Enforcing agencies should be provided with resources so they can ensure that all workplaces and public buildings comply with management and removal regulations to responsibly and safely remove their asbestos.

  • Residential property sales:

Before any house sale is completed, an asbestos survey should be carried out. Any asbestos containing materials should be labelled and information on the presence of asbestos should be given to any contractor working on the house.

Asbestos in every type of building

Around 170,000 tonnes of asbestos was annually imported into the UK between the 1950s and early 1980s, and even during the 1990s, around 10,000 tonnes of white asbestos was still coming into the country each year. Asbestos insulation would inevitably find its way into almost every type of public, private and commercial building.

Imports of white asbestos were only discontinued at the end of 1999. As a result, the professional construction industry point out that any property built or renovated up until 2000 is liable to contain up to 30 per cent of asbestos containing materials. Residential premises, including local authority housing and council estates could also contain asbestos by up to 10 per cent in materials, such as cement panel ceilings, tiles and textured coatings. At least 5 per cent could also be present in fire protection materials, including the underside of garage roofs, boiler cupboard enclosures and pipework lagging.

No safe threshold level

The HSE and the construction industry repeatedly warn that any property built or renovated up until 2000 is likely to contain asbestos. In May 2011, HM Government Office for Science said that white asbestos should remain classified as a Class 1 cancer-causing agent, as it was not possible to set a “threshold level”, below which, exposure could be considered ‘safe’ for human health.

Britain has one of the world’s highest number of people who die from mesothelioma, with a four-fold increase just in the last thirty years, according to recently published figures from the Office of National Statistics. An estimated 5,000 people are projected to die from asbestos exposure each year and a further 45,000 mesothelioma deaths can be expected by 2050 according to the HSE.

The need to put into place a nationwide programme for the total removal of asbestos from British homes and workplaces is long overdue.