A sign of an improved attitude towards asbestos awareness? Frantic alarm bells are more likely to be immediately sounded these days when asbestos is suspected of being present in a building. The latest dramatic reminder that the potential risk of exposure to the deadly fibres can still be a common health hazard was reported recently in the Liverpool press.

Cheshire Fire And Rescue Service said five fire engines were called to a derelict building in Runcorn when children who were thought to be playing inside were eventually found on the roof. Reporters at the scene said that fire fighters were wearing special breathing equipment to enter the building, which they believed to be contaminated with asbestos,

In addition, the police cordoned off roads and a public footbridge from a nearby shopping centre car park leading to the premises. A similar alarm brought the emergency services to another disused building in 2015 when two teenagers who were reported to be lost inside were then told to visit their family doctors as a health precaution, including for asbestos exposure.

Health dangers were neglected or simply ignored

All very different from the heyday of the 1950s, 60s and 70s when around 170,000 tons of asbestos was annually imported into the country for widespread use as material strengthener, insulation and fireproofing. Throughout much of British industry, especially shipbuilding, manufacturing and construction, the deadly health dangers were neglected or simply ignored by company employers despite the build up of overwhelming medical evidence from as far back as the 1920s and 30s. Time and time again, testimonies given by victims of asbestos exposure diagnosed with fatal mesothelioma cancer or other asbestosis diseases, recall the lack of protective equipment or safety information.

Some three decades have passed since the first UK ban on the most dangerous blue and brown asbestos fibre types in the mid 1980s. But even after white asbestos was finally banned in the last year of the 20th century, too often the tendency is to also downplay the potential risks of exposure more commonly reported whenever asbestos containing materials are found within a public building, such as a school or a block of residential council flats.

No acceptable ‘low risk’ safety threshold

The initial reaction by some authorities is to recycle the myth that white asbestos is “low risk”, based on early medical research into the body’s ability to eliminate this type of fibre from the lung tissue earlier than other asbestos fibre types. Later research informed a government health and science department to say, officially, that there is no acceptable ‘low risk’ safety threshold of exposure to white asbestos.

Time and time again, it is the determined protests and calls for action by a local community campaign group that highlight the ever-present dangers of asbestos containing materials at a land fill site, proposed housing development or school building.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have said that there could still be around six million tonnes of asbestos hidden in properties throughout the UK, a significant proportion of which, may be found in commercial and industrial premises. The sites of former factories, foundries, mills and engineering workshops are often a potential health risk to both local area residents and building site/demolition workers.

Asbestos in public buildings is a long standing issue for emergency services

Professional construction industry experts have consistently repeated that any premises built or renovated up until the final UK asbestos ban at the end of 1999 is liable to contain between 5 per cent and 30 per cent of asbestos containing materials. Today, asbestos is thought to still lay hidden in over half a million buildings around the country. While it is estimated that as many as 8 in every ten schools across Britain contain asbestos, one recent study found asbestos is present in nearly three quarters of the 98,000 properties owned by a Northern Ireland housing association.

Action over asbestos in public buildings is a long standing issue for asbestos victims organisations, builders, skilled trades and emergency services, alike.

In 2013, fire and rescue services asked HSE to clarify their position on the legal requirements for periodic medical examinations for crew members who disturb asbestos when entering buildings. Previously, 50 fire fighters were called to a former asbestos factory in Rochdale, where local residents were advised to close doors and windows as a precaution due to the high volumes of smoke being released into the atmosphere. One former 84 year old fireman from Hull received asbestos compensation after contracting an asbestos-related disease when he worked for the Fire Brigade between 1951 and 1969.

“Timetable” urged for the removal of all asbestos

In 2014, the Health and Safety Executive reported that an estimated 5,000 people will die from asbestos exposure each year and a further 45,000 mesothelioma deaths can be expected over the next three decades.

In the same year, the European Economic and Social Committee put forward a proposal, which recommends the “total removal of all used asbestos and all asbestos containing products” across the EU. In the UK, a Parliamentary Group has recently called for a “timetable” which aims to see the removal of asbestos from every single workplace in Britain by 2035.