Scattered showers and mini heatwaves! It must mean that Britain is in the middle of the summer holiday season. Not knowing whether to leave the house with sunglasses or an umbrella before heading to the beach – or taking both, just in case – may be slightly depressing. But increasingly, the risks of avoiding a downpour or sunburn have been joined by another potential concern – asbestos contamination.
The illegal dumping of asbestos waste by a roadside or public footpath continues to be a growing menace across the UK. The Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) state that flytipping has increased by nearly a fifth, year on year. Nearly 6 per cent comprises construction, demolition and excavation waste, which often includes asbestos materials.
However, the appearance of asbestos on British beaches and, coincidentally, almost always during the summer months, now adds asbestos awareness of another potential seaside danger to the holidaymaker’s list.
Potentially serious health threat
Recently, the appearance of asbestos waste on a beach at Prestwick in Ayrshire led to the local council promptly closing the area off to the many tourists who normally visit during the holiday season.
It was encouraging to hear that the council recognised the discovery of asbestos as a potentially serious health threat compared to the usual announcements by local authorities, which sometimes suggest that the asbestos type found was ‘low risk’. The council has yet to determine if the asbestos was illegally dumped or washed up on the tide, and the beach is to remain closed until the materials are removed and a survey has been carried out.
When asbestos materials turned up on two separate occasions at a beach at Leas in Minster on the Isle of Sheppey, a statement issued by the Department of Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), stated that white chrysotile asbestos is a “lower risk product and unlikely to pose a significant risk to health.” When two months later, further asbestos was discovered on the same stretch of beach, and on nearby Shellness beach, the local council said that a total of 15 kilos of asbestos had been retrieved from the area and advised that members of the public should, “avoid any suspicious material they may find on the beach.”
Another instance of asbestos mysteriously found at a coastal resort occurred in South Tyneside when the hazardous fibres were washed up alongside building materials, demolition rubble and broken glass on the dunes at Sandhaven Beach. At the time, the council was also dealing with asbestos discovered in the ground further along the coast at a former landfill site and insisted there was no health risk.
However, the dangers of exposure to asbestos over the summer holidays are unlikely to be confined to waste materials dumped openly on a public beach. Holidaymakers risk the hidden dangers of asbestos insulation at a hotel or guest house.
Fibre dust… remains in the air for several days or even weeks
A hotel in Folkestone, Kent was found to possess quantities of the insulating material in the walls, ceilings and building eaves during a major refurbishment. Disturbing asbestos for any reason can cause the fibre dust to become airborne and remain in the air for several days or even weeks at a time and the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) cautioned that hotel guests “face an uncertain future”.
Britain banned the most toxic blue and brown asbestos types from use as industrial and building insulation in the mid 1980s, followed 15 years later by halting imports of so-called ‘low-risk’ white asbestos. Nevertheless, the professional construction industry repeatedly warn that any public or private building constructed or refurbished in Britain at any time up until the mid 1980s and even as late as the 1990s is likely to contain up to 30 per cent white (chrysotile) asbestos. Building firms were still using retained stock holdings of asbestos-containing materials, including wall panels, soffits, bath panels, roofing tiles, concrete water tanks, etc.
However, a 2014 survey commissioned by the HSE found that only 15 per cent of tradesmen said they knew that asbestos could still be present in properties built up to 2000. More than eight in ten tradesmen did not know that white asbestos insulation continued to be used by the building industry after the 1985 ban on using brown and blue asbestos products.
It’s therefore not surprising that asbestos waste can find itself illegally dumped by small firms who ignore all the required health and safety regulations just so they can quickly and cheaply complete the removal task. In some cases, the workmen may also be unaware that they could eventually develop asbestosis diseases because of regular exposure to the deadly fibre dust.
Unfortunately, the illegal flytipping of asbestos materials, even in a public place such as the beach, is unlikely to go away any time soon. It has been estimated that there could be at least half a million properties, both private and public still containing asbestos hidden within the fabric of the building.