Mesothelioma sufferers, asbestos victim support groups, doctors and asbestosis lawyers alike, will be concerned to hear that laws relating to asbestos could be seriously weakened as a result of Brexit. One MP has called for the amendment of existing regulations over white asbestos as the government starts to set out its proposals for “The “Great Repeal Bill”, which aims to incorporate EU legislation into UK law as part of the Brexit process.

The degree of health risk attached to white “chrysotile” fibres when compared to the blue “crocidolite” and brown “amosite” types is often a misunderstood asbestos awareness issue, which has rumbled on for more than thirty years. Whenever dust or materials from white asbestos are discovered at a UK school, council premises or housing estate, a spokesman is often quick to announce that the type of asbestos found is ‘low-risk’ and does not pose a health threat.

Unfortunately, the proposals regarding white asbestos may not stop there. Amendments to regulations governing the safe use of asbestos cement were raised in 2010, and in 2015, a lobby group called for exemptions to the law, which would “allow the re-use of end of life asbestos cement sheets on farms” instead of its removal.

Denial of risk has been a factor in the continuing presence of asbestos

Untold devastation was caused, and is still impacting the lives of men and women today as a result of widespread exposure to asbestos from the late 1940s through to 1980s, and beyond. In 2016, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) published their latest “Statistics on Fatal Injuries in the Workplace in Great Britain”, which showed that the number of deaths resulting from the incurable cancer was, for the third year running, over 2,500, and the trend looks likely to continue for another 20 years, at least.

Those diagnosed with mesothelioma and other asbestosis diseases have long battled to see justice for the harm and often the fatal injury brought as a result of the widespread use of asbestos insulation in British industry, and the failure of employers to protect their workforce. The denial of risk attached to white asbestos has also been a factor that has contributed to the continuing presence of asbestos in schools and other public buildings nearly two decades after imports of the mineral fibres were finally banned four weeks before the end of the 20th century.

So why does the continuing presence of white asbestos lead to a different understanding over the health risk? The answer can be traced back to July 1985. After more than half a century since a Home Office survey found asbestos disease was widespread across the UK, the government imposed a ban on blue and brown asbestos. However, the use of white asbestos was allowed to continue in the manufacture of building materials, such as wallboards, roofing sheets and tiles, cement binding agent and sprayed surface texture coatings.

The myth was born that chrysotile fibres “ by themselves” were not harmful

The reason was based on research carried out some thirty years earlier, as UK asbestos use began to escalate, and which saw imports of all three asbestos types hit more than 180, 000 tons in 1973. Investigation into the structure of white chrysotile asbestos found that the fibres are curly, which became known as “serpentine”. They are longer, thinner and more flexible than the insoluble rigid, needle-like fibres of brown amosite and blue crocidolite asbestos fibres, known as “amphibole”.

Consequently, it was thought that inhaled chrysotile fibre particles were less likely to be permanently embedded in the lung linings, cause inflammation and turn cells cancerous. It was also concluded that white asbestos fibres more able to be “broken down” by the body and a higher number expelled over a shorter period of time. Less congested lungs could also mean that the body can more easily clear out the longest fibres.

A further complication involves the exceptionally long period of between 15 to 50 years before the first asbestosis symptoms appear. A belief arose, which research has since discredited, that over time it was possible for the risk of cancer cells to develop would decrease As a result, the myth was born that chrysotile fibres “by themselves” were not harmful.

Fibres of all types can become cancerous

Since that time, medical research has consistently found that the presence of asbestos fibres of all types can cause severe tissue inflammation, leading to scarring of the lung linings (pleural plaques), thickening of the lungs themselves (pleural thickening) and a build-up of liquid (pleural effusion). Eventually, tissue cells can become cancerous, forming tumours of the incurable mesothelioma cancer, which can spread to adjacent tissues and organs.

The Government Office for Science has also confirmed that chrysotile is a Class 1 cancer-causing substance, adding that it may not be possible to determine a threshold level, below which, exposure could be deemed ‘safe’ for human health. The same applies for exposure to chrysotile used in cement products, during its removal and disposal.

Already a call has been raised by concerned observers for senior government ministers to provide a “cast-iron guarantee” that the existing asbestos regulations will not be weakened or modified, and safety remains the main priority. In the period ahead, as the contents of the Repeal Bill become known, it is hoped that the existing hard fought-for laws to provide protection from asbestos risk will not be undone as a result of a long standing misunderstanding.