In the post-industrial age, asbestos awareness of its historical widespread use in the UK continues to be driven by reports of victims diagnosed with asbestosis diseases and frequent discoveries of the deadly fibres in buildings unconnected with traditional occupational exposure. It was recently reported that asbestos materials were found during a large scale refurbishment of a Brighton Police Station.

It’s not the first time that the potentially fatal insulating material – responsible for 4,500 deaths every year from mesothelioma – has caused sirens to be sounded within the force. The Metropolitan Police have previously warned that as many as 30,000 officers could have been exposed in police buildings containing asbestos insulation over nearly 30 years.

Properties built using cheaply-sourced asbestos

In the post WW2 decades of reconstruction up until the late 1970s hundreds of thousands of public, private, industrial and commercial properties were built using cheaply-sourced asbestos as an universal insulator. Asbestos was used to line walls, ceilings, floors, boilers, pipework and exterior roofs. More than half of the 8,000 work-related cancer deaths recorded each year are caused by past exposures to asbestos, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

A spokesman for the Sussex Police confirmed the presence of asbestos materials at the Police station, which was built in the 1960s when an average of 164,000 tons of asbestos was imported every year for use as insulation for building and engineering as well as in hundreds of everyday products. It was also admitted that Sussex Police use specialist consultants to carry out asbestos management surveys every three years in all their buildings. Licensed removal contractors will then remove hidden or “unrecorded” asbestos whenever found.

Emergency services, such as the Police, are often at high risk of exposure

Despite the declining use of asbestos in the UK from the late 1970s, and the first ban introduced in the mid-1980s, it has become clear that men and women not employed in asbestos-related occupations are increasingly being diagnosed with asbestos-related conditions. It is not always realised that those working in the emergency services, such as the Police, are often at high risk of exposure. In September 2017, the family of a police officer who died after being exposed to asbestos following The Grand hotel bombing in Brighton in 1984, received compensation for not being warned or protected from the potential exposure risk. The police officer had spent 14 days sifting through dust and rubble by hand, looking for evidence.

Just a year earlier, a former police officer lost his life to mesothelioma aged 84, after a 35 year career which began at the age of 17, working out of a number of police stations in the Birmingham area.

However, in a growing number of cases, the presence of asbestos in a premises cannot be immediately and precisely determined more than 30 or 40 years later, and are often dubbed “mystery” exposures. A coroner will also record that the cause of death was an “industrial disease” despite a strong link to asbestos exposure.

A 73 year old former policeman who was with the West Midlands Police from 1956 to 1990, died from mesothelioma but a verdict of ‘industrial illness’ was recorded, leaving his widow to try and establish the cause of the exposure.

There could still be millions of premises containing asbestos

Not a month passes without a report of white asbestos dust fibres being discovered at a school, council flat, high street chain store or public amenity. More than half a century later, the construction industry estimate that there could still be millions of premises containing asbestos hidden in the walls, ceilings or their roofs.

In 2015, The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health released a new report, which reinforced the need for comprehensive measures to be introduced for a planned removal of all asbestos from every property in Britain by 2030. The report highlighted that the current measures for managing asbestos are unsatisfactory and will never protect individuals from a potential health risk.

The need to put into place a nationwide programme for the total removal of asbestos from British homes and workplaces has yet to be implemented. Meanwhile, one year later in 2016, mesothelioma or non-malignant pleural diseases associated with asbestos exposure accounted for 60 per cent of cases reported to a scheme monitoring work-related respiratory disease in the UK, commissioned by the HSE.