Asbestos is recognised by the World Health Organisation as one of the most carcinogenic materials there is and asbestos in all its forms is now banned in 52 countries of the world, including the UK. However asbestos was once used so widely that the UK has one of the highest incidences of asbestos related cancer in the world
Back in the 1950s its dangers were not so widely known and certainly not widely publicised. Whilst many people were aware that they worked with or in the vicinity of asbestos, they thought that it was safe. Because asbestos cancers, such as mesothelioma, take so long to develop the effects are only now becoming truly apparent. It is predicted that the annual deaths from asbestos cancer will peak at around 2015 and that the legacy will remain for decades after that. By 2050 there will have been 90,000 deaths in the UK, 65,000 since 2001.
Why was Asbestos used?
Asbestos was popular because it was cheap and effective. It was more cost effective to use asbestos when manufacturing cement pipes than it was to reinforce them with steel. It also made the finished product much lighter to transport saving on costs overall. During the baby boom of the 19620s when many new schools and public buildings were built to meet the demand of the growing population, asbestos was ubiquitous.
Where was Asbestos used?
Asbestos cement was used as a lagging for hot pipes, boilers, gaskets and central heating systems; corrugated asbestos sheeting was used for roofing particularly of commercial buildings, sheds and garages; textured decorative coatings such as artex contained asbestos; asbestos panels lined cavity walling, heating and service ducting; asbestos floor and ceiling tiles were common, even fire retardant fabrics were produced in huge quantity.
It is believed that asbestos contaminated dust has been building up in our communities for years raising the background levels of the dust such that they potentially affect all of us.
Nowadays in the UK and the majority of the developed world safer products such as fibreglass and ceramics have replaced many materials that once contained asbestos. However the asbestos legacy is vast and will be with us for many years hence. Whilst many people know that asbestos is dangerous, many more would not recognise it if they came across it. The Health and Safety Executive are aware that there is still a great deal of ignorance about exactly how much asbestos is left in our homes, workplaces, public buildings, factories, hospitals and schools.
Is it safe?
The accepted wisdom is that asbestos is safe provided it is undisturbed. The problem arises when it is unknowingly disturbed perhaps by builders, DIY enthusiasts or by disasters such as explosion, fire or flood.
Unfortunately the story in other parts of the world is very different. Asbestos is still mined and traded and used in manufacturing processes mostly ending up in the third world and Eastern Europe. We urge those countries still trading in asbestos to look to the UK legacy.
We support a worldwide ban on asbestos and asbestos products. If you think that any of these issues have affected you or your family please call Simpson Millar's Asbestos Team on 0800 634 1626 for friendly legal advice.