The risk of exposure to asbestos is probably the last thing you would think to worry about on a night out to the cinema or theatre. Most people’s asbestos awareness and understanding of where exposure might take place is likely to be limited to public buildings, such as schools, hospitals, council offices, housing estates and former factory sites where the potentially hazardous fibres are more commonly reported to have been discovered.

In reality, asbestos fibres were used by British construction, engineering and manufacturing in almost every type of insulation and fireproofing material during the peak years from the 1940s through to the late 1970s. Three decades after the first asbestos ban in July 1985, more than 2,100 people are diagnosed every year with the incurable mesothelioma cancer or other asbestosis diseases. The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) latest figures reveal that mesothelioma had claimed the lives of more than 2,535 people in 2012 – up by more than 10 per cent on 2011.

The widespread use of asbestos in the installation of insulation board, ceiling tiles and hot water pipe lagging, for example, means every type of public or private property built or renovated up until white asbestos was banned in November 1999 could potentially contain hidden asbestos containing materials. The use of asbestos in cinemas and theatres cannot be discounted and asbestos tends to be found when surveys are carried out before renovations or site redevelopment.

Serious breach of the regulations

In one recent example, the discovery of asbestos at a cinema in St Albans during refurbishment was reported when an investigation into the removal of the materials found a serious breach of the regulations. HSE claim there was a failure to carry out a full risk assessment to identify the location, condition and extent of risk that asbestos posed to the site contractors and others, and minimise the potential risk.

In summer 2015, it was announced that the Bloomsbury Theatre, London would close in January 2016 following the discovery by building contractors of asbestos fibres – most notably, brown amosite – in the rafters of the auditorium. Brown amosite asbestos, along with blue asbestos was one of the most dangerous of the asbestos fibre groups to be first banned, and is considered to be now less commonly found than white asbestos.

Two years behind schedule

A cinema in Tunbridge Wells was reported to be almost two years behind schedule in a redevelopment project, which included the required safe and secured removal of quantities of asbestos before further demolition work could proceed.

An asbestos survey carried out at a Bradford Odeon cinema and Bingo complex, constructed in the 1930s – and still retaining most of the original features covered by partitions and false ceilings – was found to contain quantities of asbestos in poor condition. Asbestos insulation board was identified throughout the ground floor, basement and corridor areas. One cinema screening room itself contained sprayed white asbestos coatings.

What risk has been posed to the public attending cinemas and theatres later found to contain asbestos hidden in the fabric of the building?

Contact with asbestos during his regular work

The majority of mesothelioma victims were directly and regularly exposed to asbestos over a period of time at one or more places of work. The dangers of exposure to asbestos in a cinema are more likely to be faced by a cinema worker, such as film projectionist or a builder, electrician or maintenance worker who frequently comes into contact with asbestos during his regular work in a building including, cinemas or theatres.

In one recent case, a retired electrical contractor came into contact with asbestos at different workplaces during his career, including a cinema at the Elephant and Castle, London where he worked as a film projectionist at a cinema for just three months in the early 1960s. Part of his regular duties as a projectionist was to check the lighting and change any faulty bulbs, which involved walking every day along a catwalk within a ceiling void lined with asbestos.

The risk of exposure to asbestos in any building constructed or renovated up until 2000 cannot be totally excluded, say most professional trade organisations. The HSE have estimated that more than 1.8 million people still come into occupational contact with asbestos materials. However, most of those who are at highest risk are likely to be employed in the building industry and related skill trades, such as joiners and electricians.