Shipbuilding workers in 21st century Britain may have been exposed to asbestos, according to online reports following the discovery of the deadly mineral in grit abrasives, in October 2017. The shock revelations are a grim echo of Britain’s past use of asbestos as insulation, especially during the middle decades of the 20th century.

Countless numbers of men were daily exposed to asbestos-containing materials in shipyards based in the north of England, Scotland and on the South East coast. Despite of mounting medical evidence and eventual introduction of legislation, the widespread lack of asbestos awareness to the potential deadly health dangers caused thousands of lives to be cut short decades later by the fatal mesothelioma cancer or to suffer other asbestosis diseases.

The recent discovery that asbestos-contaminated blast-cleaning abrasives were supplied to companies in the UK, Netherlands, Belgium and elsewhere could mean that workers employed in other industries such as, oil, gas and petrochemicals are likely to be affected. The aluminium silicate product is used primarily for removing rust and dirt from steel surfaces. Over the last two years, more than 140 companies were supplied with the grit abrasive, which would also have been sold on to industrial sectors involved with civil engineering, road construction, façade cleaning and even textiles.

Deadly legacy of asbestos use in the shipbuilding regions has never really gone away

The possibility of a return of asbestos contamination to some of Britain’s most historically afflicted industries is bound to be devastating news to the communities concerned, as the deadly legacy of asbestos use in the shipbuilding regions has never really gone away. In the last 20 years, nearly all the former shipbuilding areas continue to show an increase in fatality figures – reaching nearly 500 in just four years in North Tyneside – say the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Barrow-in-Furness in the north west, once famous for the Vickers shipyard, recorded a mesothelioma mortality rate more than two and a half times the national average.

The extent of the present exposures to the asstos-containing abrasive is yet to be determined. However, according to several reports, contaminated grit products were used at shipbuilding yards, steel works, thermal power stations, bridge and railway renovations, municipal workshops, factory depots and small containers owned by public sector and private corporations, including Tata Steel.

The connection to Tata Steel is almost certainly unrelated, but may provide a clue as to where the asbestos contaminated grit may have entered the supply chain.

Fibres in the plant machinery where it is believed the contamination occurs

Although a number of previous reports claimed that the contaminated grit came from Ukraine, analysis of international shipping patterns indicates that the abrasive may actually have been added in India. According to UK research, it was found that aluminium silicate was exported by Ukraine to India, which then reduces the material by crushing, and returns the processed grit back to Ukraine where it is then sold and shipped to other countries.

It is known that the Indian ore crushers are used to process white ‘chrysotile’ asbestos. However, no cleaning of the equipment takes place afterwards and the build-up of fibres left behind is not removed. Instead the fibres remain lodged in the plant machinery where it is believed the contamination occurs during the crushing of the aluminium silicate.

To date, 55 countries around the world have banned the use of asbestos fibres as an insulating material but still more than 2 million tonnes of the deadly mineral are mined and exported annually to developing industrial economies. The majority of asbestos produced by the world’s biggest producers, Russia, China and India, is imported by Asian countries while around 10 per cent went to just five countries – Ukraine, Belarus, Mexico, Cuba and Colombia.

Action urged over the current system of checking materials for dangerous contaminants

Following the discovery, the HSE issued a statement in early November 2017, confirming that they are “investigating reports of a small number of UK users who may have been supplied with [asbestos] contaminated shot-blasting material” and are meeting with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. A Health and Safety spokesman at the Trades Union Congress has also pointed to “a series of examples of where products containing asbestos have been imported into the UK” and urges action over “the current system of checking materials for dangerous contaminants …to keep these potentially deadly products out.”

This is not the first time that asbestos has been suspected of reaching Britain. In 2016, the HSE began enquiries into building materials containing asbestos, which potentially could be imported via the UK division of a Chinese cladding company. Two years earlier, a Trading Standards investigation in Belfast, Ireland, found a black market cigarette brand known to contain asbestos was widespread across the city.