Asbestos was once a commonly used construction material that is still prevalent in many buildings today. However, years after the material was used in everything from insulation to flooring, it was discovered that asbestos poses a serious health risk to those that are exposed to it, causing physical damage that cannot yet be cured.
It’s now been two decades since the import and use of asbestos was banned in the United Kingdom, and yet according to the Institute of Occupational Health and Safety, we’re still seeing around 5000 people die as a direct result of the harmful material each year. In this article, we ask why this is still happening and explore what can be done to prevent these deaths.
Asbestos is the name given to a naturally occurring group of minerals, recognisable for their fibrous appearance, widely used in construction throughout the 20th century because of the insulation properties they bring. The fibres are heat and electricity-resistant, and also take a very long time to corrode which makes it a very long-lasting material.
Companies mined asbestos in countries all over the world, but the main areas that exported it were Russia, China, North America and Kazakhstan. Some types of asbestos were mined as deposits, whilst others were discovered as contaminants in minerals like talc and vermiculite.
There are six different types of asbestos that can be split into two categories. Crocidolite, amosite, anthophyllite, tremolite and actinolite are all types of amphibole asbestos, which is characterised by the fibres’ long and jagged shape. Chrysotile is a type of serpentine asbestos, recognised by the curly shape of the asbestos fibres.
Asbestos can be found in hundreds of thousands, and potentially millions, of buildings in this country, particularly in insulating boards, roofing, and some types of spray coverings. Whilst the dangerous risks of asbestos were discovered almost as soon as it started being widely used in the mid-1900s, it wasn’t until the end of the century that all kinds of the material were banned from use in construction in the UK.
The first asbestos prohibition laws were introduced in 1985 when the import and use of crocidolite and amosite asbestos were banned. The import and use of white chrysotile asbestos weren’t made illegal until 1999, and now it is a criminal offence to knowingly use asbestos as a building material.
In November 2002, the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations was introduced and made it a legal requirement for anyone working with asbestos to have a licence from HSE. This licence indicates that they have undergone an appropriate level of training to work with the material safely and minimise the harm that it might cause them or the people around them.
These regulations were replaced in 2006 by the Control of Asbestos Regulations Act, combining all existing legislation about asbestos into a law that made it illegal to use, supply or import asbestos. This also applied to other materials that contained even trace amounts of asbestos fibres or asbestos dust.
Asbestos isn’t dangerous unless the fibres are disturbed, so another thing that the law covered was that undamaged asbestos materials from before 1999 don’t have to be removed if they can be left undisturbed. This is why some buildings and homes still contain asbestos but aren’t considered dangerous, as steps have been taken to secure the material.
The Control of Asbestos Regulations Act (2006) introduced limits for asbestos exposure to try and keep the people that work with or around the material as safe as possible. This means that there’s an airborne exposure limit of 0.1 fibres per cm³ for every 4 hours of work, and for any short-term exposure, the limit should not exceed 0.6 fibres per cm³.
An approved code of practice was written to manage the hazards of asbestos, which these regulations made mandatory for contractors working with asbestos to follow. These involve the applications that need to be submitted before working with asbestos, the necessary risk assessment steps and the personal protective equipment required to keep workers safe from exposure to asbestos.
The most recent update to asbestos legislation was in 2012 with the introduction of the new Control of Asbestos Regulations. The only thing that this legislation really changed however was that some types of non-licensed work with asbestos now have additional steps that should be taken to ensure compliance with HSE.
Asbestos as a whole material isn’t actually a hazard, which is why items containing asbestos from before 1999 can be left in place if they’re not going to be disturbed, However, when materials that contain asbestos are damaged the fibres are released into the air, and inhaling these fibres is what leads to diseases caused by asbestos.
When inhaled, asbestos can have serious health implications. The fibres cause significant damage and scarring to the lungs, which over time can result in all manner of illnesses, including cancer and heart failure. Asbestos fibres are also very small and so are difficult to see when airborne, so you can be exposed to the material and inhale it without even realising it.
One of the reasons that asbestos risks are so dangerous is that the impact of exposure to the fibres isn’t often realised until decades later. At this point, it’s usually too late to reverse the effects of asbestos exposure, and many of the diseases caused by the material can be fatal.
The risks of prolonged exposure cannot be overstated, though it’s important to be aware that simply coming into contact with asbestos fibres for a short duration is unlikely to cause a problem. If you think you might have been exposed to damaged asbestos, it’s best to get in touch with a doctor immediately and discuss how to manage your health.
The effects of working with or being exposed to asbestos often do not manifest themselves for decades, which is one of the main reasons we’re still seeing so many deaths. The ban simply came too late for many people, who are just now being diagnosed with cancers such as mesothelioma. These people will most often have been those working with the material, whether in mining, manufacturing, or using the product in construction.
Unfortunately, this is not to say that all of the deaths can be put down to pre-ban activities. While the trend may well decline in the coming years, asbestos still remains a risk.
In a report put out by IOSH, it was revealed that 135 companies were ordered to stop work because they weren’t meeting their safety obligations, and another 130 had to be warned that their operational safety needed to improve. At the most severe end of the scale, around 30 companies were given fines and some individuals were given prison sentences because of their callous approach to activities involving asbestos.
IOSH’s chief executive Bev Messinger said: “Thousands die in Britain every year from cancers like mesothelioma, while many more are diagnosed with it. We must also consider the families of these people, who watch their loved ones suffer. All this is preventable through good occupational safety and health. It is time for organisations to wake up and realise how dangerous asbestos is. There are no excuses.”
Currently, the law mandates that those who work with asbestos (generally during construction works) are appropriately trained, and in many cases they will have to be licensed contractors. This is to ensure that the risk can be properly assessed, and hazards avoided.
When handled correctly, asbestos-containing products are no risk, and can often be left in situ. As stated by Messinger, there is no reason for us to see future deaths as a result of asbestos other than those that are unfortunately too late.
Those that may come into contact with asbestos through their course of work should have at least some basic understanding and awareness of the risk, even if they’re not licensed for most of the tasks associated with it. It is, after all, often the case that asbestos is disturbed unexpectedly during construction or DIY projects. This is why the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) places a large focus on asbestos awareness.
Asbestos poisoning is the result of spending an extended amount of time around the material, breathing in asbestos fibres. It is also referred to as asbestosis, which can cause symptoms like swollen fingers, shortness of breath, prolonged cough and further complications with your lungs.
The symptoms of asbestos poisoning may not appear for at least twenty years after you have been exposed to asbestos. This is why the material is still causing health problems today, despite it being banned from use two decades ago.
Any amount of asbestos exposure can be considered dangerous. Even breathing in a tiny amount of asbestos fibres can lead to asbestosis later in life, so there’s no ‘safe’ period of time that you can spend around the material before it starts presenting a threat to your health.
Asbestos exposure can lead to asbestosis, which causes scar tissue to develop in the lungs and creates breathing problems. It can also cause a specific type of lung and lower digestive tract cancer known as mesothelioma, which is very serious and usually results in death for the person diagnosed with it.
The dangers of asbestos can seem very scary, but it’s important to remember that the majority of people won’t ever be in a scenario where there’s a risk of exposure to the fibres. Being aware of the asbestos health risks and the legislation connected with the material is a priority for those working in construction where full training and safety equipment will be required before any work with asbestos takes place.
We recognise the danger asbestos represents, and are pleased to be able to offer an 'Asbestos Awareness' that covers all of the essential information and will help to demonstrate to the HSE that you and your workers have had appropriate training.