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UK asbestos regulations slammed

Report calls for central register of hospital and school buildings containing asbestos

Mark Gould

Monday, 25 November 2019

British asbestos regulation is so inadequate that a child can legally be exposed to 10 times as much of the toxic material as they would be in countries such as Germany, a new report* warns.

The report, from the think tank ResPublica, calls for standards to be brought up to levels in the strictest European countries.

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.

The report calls on a new government to bring the Health & Safety regime for the management of asbestos up to the highest international standards, as currently practiced in Germany, the Netherlands and France.

It also calls for the establishment of a central register of all asbestos currently in place in public buildings across the UK (including schools, hospitals and social housing). “This should identify precise location, type and condition. We suggest that this duty, alongside appropriate resources and capability, should be devolved to the local authority level,” the report says.

And it says that the government should commission a cost-benefit analysis for the removal of all asbestos from public buildings in the UK. In turn, it should commit to a frame for phased removal on the basis of danger and risk to public health.

The report criticises the regulatory regime in the UK for allowing schoolchildren to inhale levels of airborne asbestos so much higher than are accepted elsewhere.

It argues that 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 said.

According to figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) released in July, in 2017 there were 2,523 deaths from mesothelioma, a cancer caused almost exclusively by the inhalation of asbestos fibres. It is estimated that a similar number of people die from asbestos-related lung cancers.

According to figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), since 2001 at least 305 teaching and education professionals have died of mesothelioma. 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.

A HSE spokesperson said there were stringent legal requirements for those responsible for public buildings in Britain to protect against the risks of asbestos. “There is only a significant risk if any asbestos already within the building fabric is disturbed,” they said.

“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.”

*DON’T BREATHE IN: BRIDGING THE ASBESTOS SAFETY GAP. A review of research, policy and practice. Prepared by ResPublica, November 2019.

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