Monday, November 25, 2019

The Asbestos Problem

According to figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) released in July, in 2017 there were 2,523 deaths from mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the organs caused almost exclusively by the inhalation of asbestos fibres. It is estimated that a similar number of people die from asbestos-related lung cancers. Between 1920 and 2000, Europe accounted for more than 50% of all asbestos traded throughout the world. The UK imported more asbestos per capita than any other country and has the highest rates of asbestos-related deaths in Europe.

There are estimated to be about 6m tonnes of asbestos spread across 1.5m buildings in the UK, with about 80% of schools and 94% of NHS trusts containing it.  A 2018 study suggested that there were five times more deaths from mesothelioma among teachers and three times more among nurses than expected in populations not exposed to the substance. According to figures from the ONS, since 2001 at least 305 teaching and education professionals have died of mesothelioma.

The technology used to measure airborne asbestos fibres in the UK is far less accurate than the techniques used in other countries. 

“A child inhales between five and 10 cubic metres of air per day, meaning the permitted levels of airborne asbestos in the UK can expose a child to 100,000 fibres per day, compared with 10,000 fibres in Germany,” the report from the think tank ResPublica.

The thinktank recommends that the UK government bring requirements for the management of asbestos up to the highest international standards, which it says are practiced in Germany, the Netherlands and France.
“The assumption is that the harm caused by asbestos is a historical issue relating to traditionally hazardous occupations and industries,” said the report’s authors. “However, this view underestimates the dangers of chronic low-level exposure resulting from working in buildings containing asbestos. Mesothelioma can develop from exposure to only a small concentration of asbestos fibres, making secondary exposure no less a cause for concern.”
UK current regulations state that asbestos should be maintained in situ rather than removed, provided it is in a “good condition and well protected either by its position or physical protection”. This approach has been criticised by unions for putting people at risk.
The director of ResPublica, Phillip Blond, said toxic material being allowed to sit in an increasing state of decay in our schools and hospitals coupled with the death rates among nurses and teachers were “a tragic indictment of the current system of containment and control”.
“The inability of our current health and safety regime to recognise and respond to the true extent of the dangers posed is even more worrying,” he said, adding that a “national health crisis awaits us and our children if we do not act now.”

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