Government and HSE Must Change Attitudes Towards Asbestos Removal Programmes, British Think Tank Recommends

Should the UK Government be investing more in asbestos removal programmes, or should asbestos in-situ be maintained rather than removed (provided it is in a ‘good condition’ and is ‘well protected’, either by its position or physical protection), as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) currently advises?

In November 2019, ResPublica, the think tank, published a Report, called:  ‘DON’T BREATHE IN: BRIDGING THE ASBESTOS SAFETY GAP – A review of research, policy and practice’.

The Report revealed that 6 million tonnes of asbestos (in asbestos containing materials) is currently located within 1.5 million buildings in Britain. This equates to 4 tonnes of asbestos located inside each building.

In respect of buildings in public ownership, ResPublica divulged that:

  • At least 80% of schools contain asbestos [based on Education and Skills Funding Agency (EFSA)[i] and the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC)];[ii]
  • 74% of (106) universities (in England) contain asbestos (based on Stephensons Solicitors FOI requests);[iii] and
  • 94% of (211) hospitals contain asbestos [based on BBC FOI requests – we reported on this statistic in edition 258 of BC Disease News (here)].[iv]

Targeting children in pushing its agenda to transform the nation’s management of asbestos, the Report alleges that, if a British child were to inhale between 5 and 10 cubic metres (m3) of air per day, they could (hypothetically) be exposed to 10 times as many fibres of airborne asbestos (100,000) as in Germany (10,000).

This is because phased contrast microscopy (PCM) air monitoring, conducted in the UK, is 10 times less sensitive than electron microscopy (EM) techniques, applied in Germany, France and the Netherlands.

Compounded by a host of other criticisms, Report Authors, Mark Morrin, Jack Aldane and Hamza King, have called for a 'phased removal' of asbestos in the UK and are lobbying the relevant authorities with the following 9 recommendations.

The UK Government should:

  • Institute the highest international standards, as currently practiced in Germany, the Netherlands and France.
  • Establish a central register (under the control of local authorities) that records the precise location, type and condition of asbestos currently in place in public buildings across the UK.
  • Commission a cost-benefit analysis and timeline for the removal of all asbestos from public buildings in the UK.

The HSE should:

  • Revise the current ‘duty to manage’ (Regulation 4 of The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012).
  • Amend guidance and risk assessments to take account of asbestos exposure in children, the variation of risk associated with asbestos ‘in-situ’; amosite (brown asbestos) is 100 times more toxic than chrysotile (white asbestos), while crocidolite (blue asbestos) is 500 times more toxic than chrysotile.
  • Accurately measure and represent fatality figures in respect of those who have died from mesothelioma over the age of 74 and make efforts to capture all past occupations
  • Use electron microscopy (when buildings are in use) to measure airborne fibres up to 0.0001 f/cm3 and assure safety.
  • Improve the regime for reporting asbestos disturbances, as there is no regime for ‘systematic audit and inspection’. Duty holders are often ‘unsatisfactory’ in their accounting of risk, which reduces both the quantity and quality of ‘self-assessment and non-mandatory responses to surveys’.

UK research funding bodies should:

  • Consider the current gaps in the academic literature about the degree of risk posed by asbestos in-situ, the degree of risk posed by fibre release, the degree of risk for adult exposure vs child exposure; and the efficacy of contemporary legislation.

In an interview with The Times, in lieu of the think tank’s Report, HSE defended the current system of asbestos management:

‘There are stringent legal requirements for those responsible for public buildings in Great Britain to protect against the risks of asbestos. There is only a significant risk if any asbestos already within the building fabric is disturbed.

Great Britain led the way in 2002 to reduce these risks, when it introduced a new duty on those responsible for non-domestic buildings to locate and manage asbestos materials where it is decided it can be safely left in situ rather than removed [Regulation 4 of the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 (as amended)].

The Department for Education agrees with our advice that if asbestos is unlikely to be damaged or disturbed, then it is best managed in place and its condition monitored’.[v]

However, in the same month that the Report was distributed, Coroner Dr. Fiona Wilcox declared that cases of mesothelioma in high rise council flats, in the London Borough of Westminster, was a ‘ticking time bomb’.[vi]

What is more, in edition 273 (here), we reported that mesothelioma mortality among teachers, who may be at 5-fold risk of developing the disease,[vii] has not fallen since the turn of the 21st century.

Is it time to change the way that asbestos is managed? Only time will tell.

 

[i] Education Funding Agency, ‘Asbestos Management in Schools: Data Collection Report’ (February 2017) <https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/28572/1/Asbestos_management_in_schools_data_collection_report.pdf> accessed 23 January 2020.  

[ii] Committee of Public Accounts, Capital funding for Schools (2016–17 HC 961) para 5. <https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmpubacc/961/961.pdf> accessed 23 January 2020.

[iii] ‘Asbestos puts students at risk on campus - building material found in 74% of English university buildings’ (2 October 2019 Stephensons) <https://www.stephensons.co.uk/site/news_and_events/uptodatenews/asbestos-puts-students-at-risk-on-campus> accessed 23 January 2020.

[iv] ‘Nine out of 10 NHS trusts have asbestos in hospitals’ (9 December 2018 BBC) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-45561384> accessed 23 January 2020.

[v] ‘Hidden asbestos threat for nurses and teachers’ (25 November 2019 The Times) https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/hidden-asbestos-threat-for-nurses-and-teachers-wczjr6kh6?wgu=270525_54264_15796058213132_0c7049bdfe&wgexpiry=1587381821&utm_source=planit&utm_medium=affiliate&utm_content=22278> accessed 21 January 2020.

[vi] SIAN BAILEY ‘Concern over asbestos ‘ticking time bomb’ in council properties after woman died of cancer in her Wandsworth flat’ (22 November 2020 London News Online) <https://www.londonnewsonline.co.uk/concern-over-asbestos-ticking-time-bomb-in-council-properties-after-woman-died-of-cancer-in-her-wandsworth-flat/> accessed 21 January 2020.

[vii] Howie R, Mesothelioma deaths in teachers and nurses in Great Britain. Environmental Health Scotland (2018) 29 (4), pp.35-37. P. 36.