24th November 2019 is an important date for those of us who work with people diagnosed with, and living with, asbestos-related diseases. It marks 20 years since the UK finally decided to ban all forms of asbestos in our industries and homes.
However, since the ban, we have seen death rates from mesothelioma continuing to rise, and families continuing to suffer the effects of asbestos fibre inhalation. So has the ban really been effective?
I have been a solicitor specialising in helping sufferers of asbestos-related disease for over 15 years. In that time, I have come across many different occupations and circumstances of exposure. These have ranged from men working in power stations, on the docks, or in heavy industry such as steel, where the use of asbestos was essential to the processes carried out in the factory; through to school teachers, office workers, tax inspectors, mechanics, joiners, plumbers, electricians, and even people who never worked with asbestos at all, but were exposed to the fibres from the overalls of family members, or the area where they lived.
One thing I hear in nearly every case is that “the bosses didn’t know it was dangerous at the time”. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth.
The dangers of asbestos
Asbestos has been known to be dangerous since 1898, when the first Factories Inspectorate report highlighted symptoms amongst workers exposed to asbestos in Victorian manufacturing. However, despite the undoubted improvements in health and safety since the days of sending children up chimneys, the seriousness of asbestos exposure was slow to be taken on board by industry.
After the Second World War, when asbestos was an essential component of gas mask manufacture, the explosion in British industry throughout the late 1950s and 1960s relied heavily on asbestos. Steam driven processes had to be lagged, and asbestos provided a cheap and reliable solution to preserving heat in the steam and hot water pipes. Asbestos didn’t rust or wear away, which made it an ideal material for long term use. It could withstand huge heat, which made it an excellent friction absorber in vehicle manufacture. It also meant it was widely used for fire protection, being sprayed on to the steel frames or used in sheet form as a fire break, used to construct many office blocks and schools that were being built to replace bombed buildings, and to accommodate the growing numbers of children.
It also didn’t rot, which made it an ideal substitute for wood and resulted in it being used in many local authority building schemes, particularly for building council houses. Essentially, asbestos was everywhere, and it was the “wonder material” of its time.
Sadly, however, the same product also came with a huge human cost. Medical professionals were seeing an increased number of respiratory conditions which seemed to be linked to areas where there was high asbestos use.
Regulating asbestos use
In 1931, the first set of regulations, called the Asbestos Industry Regulations, were brought into force in an effort to try and control the fibre levels in the factories, and these were followed in 1948 and 1961 by regulations applicable to factories and construction sites, which again focused on trying to get employers to provide basic respiratory protection and ventilation, and fibre control measures, in places where they were visible in the air.
However, in the drive for post-war profits, health and safety concerns were far down the industry’s list of priorities. It was not until 1965, when Dr Muriel Newhouse and Hilda Thompson published their report establishing a link between even tiny amounts of exposure to asbestos, and a risk of developing the asbestos-related cancer, mesothelioma, that action started to be taken.
In 1969, the Asbestos Regulations were published, directly aimed at replacing and controlling the use of asbestos in industry and construction; and in 1972, Thompsons Solicitors, the firm I work for, brought the first ever claim for asbestos-related disease. Suddenly, firms and insurers were being hit in their pockets, and the problem of asbestos started to be taken seriously.
As more research was carried out into the effects of asbestos, and it became clear that the product was highly carcinogenic, with no safe level of exposure, steps were taken to control it.
However, the fibres were so tiny, that no prevention procedures could ever be 100% effective, and in the end, the decision was taken to ban blue and brown asbestos completely in 1973.
White asbestos, in the meantime, was taken up by the asbestos manufacturing companies, and promoted as the “safe” form of asbestos. Whilst it is true that white asbestos is less carcinogenic than it’s blue or brown counterparts, the fact is that it is still a dangerous substance capable of causing diseases such as mesothelioma. The asbestos manufacturing companies had evidence that this was the case, but chose to suppress that information in favour of continuing to sell asbestos to unsuspecting companies. It was not until 1999 that the UK Government finally listened to the medical evidence, and acted to ban all asbestos in the UK.
Is asbestos still a problem today?
However, that is not the end of story. Asbestos was seen as a wonder material precisely because it did not degrade, rust or rot. Therefore, there are millions of tonnes of asbestos still in our public buildings, offices, schools and homes, as well as in our factories, steelworks, and power stations.
The presence of asbestos in schools, and the effect of that asbestos on the health of teachers and children in those schools, is a cause of particular concern. Hundreds of children, teachers, support staff, kitchen staff, caretakers and other school workers are exposed to asbestos every year. Many councils cannot afford to provide basic social care, let alone stay on top of dilapidated building stock. As the buildings degrade, asbestos is being exposed.
In addition, many young people are now choosing to take up apprenticeships in trades such as plumbing, electrics or joinery.
Any building built before 2000 may contain asbestos, and yet many of the people working in these buildings are unaware of dangers posed by asbestos, and are exposing themselves to the dangerous fibres when they disturb it during the course of their work.
And the issue of asbestos use does not stop there. Asbestos is still being mined in countries such as Russia, China, Kazakhstan and India, and being used in the developing world as a cheap building and insulating material. Accordingly, rates of asbestos-related disease are continuing to rise in these countries.
In conclusion, it is easy to think of asbestos as a problem of the past; it is banned and therefore the problem has gone away. However, the reality is very different. Thousands of tonnes of asbestos remain in Britain’s buildings. Over 2,500 people die each year of mesothelioma, and it is estimated a further 2,500 people die of asbestos-related lung cancer.
People are working and living in buildings contaminated with asbestos and exposure is ongoing. It has never been more important to continue to raise awareness of the dangers of asbestos, to make people aware that this is an issue that is not going to go away.
Author bio: Helen Tomlin is a specialist asbestos lawyer at Thompsons Solicitors – a firm who won the first ever successful asbestos claim for compensation in 1972 and have been involved in every major landmark case ever since. Thompsons is raising awareness of the present problem of asbestos – you can learn more on their Asbestos: Past but Present campaign page.