Asbestos contamination at the centre of political power could see MPs forced out of the Houses of Parliament for six years. Westminster Palace, which has served as the home of English democracy from the thirteenth century, is the latest victim of Britain’s industrial use of asbestos from the 1870s onwards.

It was only in 2015 that a survey of the Palace of Westminster reported its urgent asbestos awareness concerns on the “large quantities” discovered, as well as the potentially deadly risks of “collapsing roofs, crumbling walls, and leaking pipes”. Ironically, at the same time, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health was calling for measures to remove all remaining asbestos from every property in Britain by 2035.

Persisting problem of asbestos in any building

The problem of hidden or not correctly managed asbestos-containing materials in millions of UK properties, including nearly 80 per cent of schools, continues to pose a potential and significant health threat. The number of lives lost to mesothelioma rose by nearly 11 per cent from 2,291 in 2011 to 2,535 in 2012, according to the latest Health and Safety Executive (HSE) report, June 2014.

In Britain, the professional construction industry has repeatedly warned about the persisting problem of asbestos in any building constructed or renovated at any time up to 2000. All types of commercial and public premises, including local authority housing and council estates could contain up to 10 per cent hidden asbestos such as, cement panel ceilings, tiles and textured coatings. At least 5 per cent could also be present in the underside of garage roofs, boiler cupboard enclosures and pipework lagging. It should not be too surprising that the Houses of Parliament and other historic buildings are included in the UK’s deadly portfolio of asbestos contaminated properties.

Asbestos underneath the floor at Buckingham Palace

In November 2011, it was announced that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge would take occupancy of Kensington Palace but not before 18 months of renovations were carried out, including the removal of yet more “large quantities of asbestos”, according to the National Ledger.

Seven months later, in June 2012, it was reported that £1 million had already been spent on removing asbestos discovered in the ducts underneath the floor in the south wing of Buckingham Palace. The cost of removing the remainder of the asbestos from the palace is estimated to run to several millions of pounds and may take up to twenty years to complete.

Asbestos present throughout the House of Commons

A 2007 survey at both the House of Commons and the Lords noted that asbestos was present throughout the building’s mechanical and electrical services, including in all of the ninety-eight vertical risers that carry the water pipes, electrical cables as well as in many plant rooms, corridors and under-floor voids.

Westminster Palace today mostly dates from a complete reconstruction following a major fire in October 1834. Further extensive rebuilding took place following WW2 bombing in May 1941, and many of the systems that were last replaced in the late 1940s reached the end of their working life in the 1970s and 1980s. The use of asbestos as insulation and fireproofing was widespread throughout Britain between the 1950s and the late 1970s when an average of 170,000 tons was imported every year.

It’s estimated that the replacement of all the mechanical and electrical services alone will account for nearly three quarters of the cost of the essential works. The large volume of asbestos present throughout the building adds significantly to the cost and time required, especially as much of the contaminated space is very difficult to access.

Basic renovations could take more than 30 years

The Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster is to recommend that MPs move into the nearby Department of Health with peers going to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre. However, the final decision over the estimated £3.5 billion move set to take place between 2022 and 2028, will be put to a parliamentary vote. If the MPs vote to stay, basic renovations could take more than 30 years, doubling the final cost.

Some asbestosis lawyers have commented that the removal of asbestos in schools and workplaces should receive the same urgent attention as the Houses of Parliament. Both the government and the EU parliament have previously called for measures to be taken but little has so far translated into widespread decisive action.

Meanwhile, an estimated 5,000 people are forecast to die from asbestos exposure each year and a further 45,000 mesothelioma deaths can be expected by 2050, according to the HSE.