Is asbestos being imported into Britain once again, more than 30 years since the deadly fibres were first banned? The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has begun enquiries into building materials containing asbestos, which potentially could be imported via the UK division of a Chinese cladding company.

Britain banned the use of the most dangerous blue and brown asbestos fibre types in the production of insulation and fireproofing materials in mid-1985. Despite of growing asbestos awareness, which linked exposure to asbestosis disease and fatal mesothelioma cancer, construction firms continued using up their stock holding of white asbestos. The fibre insulation could still be used in building or renovating all types of public, commercial, local authority and private properties for another ten years at least. It took until the end of 1999 before the imports of white asbestos were also stopped.

The possibility that asbestos may now find a way to re enter Britain has prompted the HSE to launch an investigation following problems on sites in Australia where cladding materials from the Asian manufacturer were being installed. There has been reports that white asbestos was found in roof panels imported by the Chinese firm, including a new hospital in Perth.

HSE investigate supply chain

Asbestos is presently banned in 55 countries around the world yet elsewhere the asbestos economy continues to grow. Russia, China, Brazil, Kazakhstan, and until recently, Canada, are well known for continuing to mine and export white chrysotile asbestos to a number of developing nations, including India and Mexico. Worldwide production has actually risen by over 2.1 million metric tonnes to meet commercial demand by the building, aerospace and defence industries.

In August 2016, HSE began to investigate the UK side of the Chinese company’s supply chain, involving the specification, quality assurance and quantity of materials they bring into the country. A number of samples have also been taken from sites where their products are being used. The company state that they have carried out a “comprehensive review” of all their materials and products, and are confident that they do “not use materials from the suppliers who provided the materials in question in the Australian projects”.

Target market for China’s export of asbestos brake pads

Australia appears to also be a target market for China’s export of asbestos brake pads and linings. Despite their own banning of asbestos in 2004, illegal brake pads containing the deadly fibres from China keep entering Australia. Despite guarantees of compliance with Australian standards, since 2009, nearly 25,000 Chinese cars from two different manufacturers imported into Australia were discovered to contain asbestos fibres in nearly 30 different engine gaskets and also in the exhaust system.

In Britain, alarm has also been previously raised over asbestos materials imports into Britain from China. A significant percentage of illegal and fake brand cigarettes are known to originate from the Asian continent. Previously, it had been estimated that six in every ten cigarette packets could be illegal.

Black market cigarettes

In 2014, a Trading Standards investigation in Belfast, Ireland found a black market cigarette brand known to contain asbestos was widespread across the city. Of the 95 products purchased, 90 were packs of illegal cigarettes and five 50g pouches of roll-your-own tobacco. Outlets found to be selling both fake and black market versions of well known brands were mostly shops, public houses and mini cab offices.

The possibility that illegal cigarettes, which may contain asbestos could have entered England led to a separate survey in the same year of discarded cigarette packets .While it was found that just over 26 per cent of cigarette packs in Belfast had not paid UK duty, in the UK the figure was not far behind at just over 24 per cent – or nearly a quarter of all packs examined.

Asbestos-contaminated toys

In 2015, the HSE was alerted to a breach of import security by authorities in Italy, Spain, Ireland and Korea following the discovery of asbestos-contaminated crayons, toys and consumer products, once again, from China.

Of the one third of 900 million European citizens who are believed to be at risk of regular exposure, nearly 15,000 lives are lost every year to asbestos-related diseases, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The estimated annual global figure for cancer fatality is 7.6 million, one-third of which is preventable, according to the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).