However asbestos can still be found in private and public buildings of all descriptions including offices, factories, schools, power stations, hospitals and homes. According to Hazard Magazine construction workers are among those most at risk of coming into contact with asbestos. It has been estimated that 1 in 10 carpenters born in the 1940s with more than 10 years of working in the construction industry are likely to develop a serious asbestos illness such as mesothelioma.
Some forms of asbestos have been banned since 1970, such as the deadly blue asbestos also known as crocidolite. However the ban on other forms of asbestos was staged and the full prohibition on all forms of asbestos and asbestos products came into force as late as 2000, construction workers employed before this time are potentially at risk and those who have worked on or in the vicinity of buildings constructed before that date should also be vigilant.
Although the use of asbestos in public buildings has now ceased, those buildings built since the 1940s which are still in use today potentially contain asbestos. Typically these will include hospitals, care homes, schools, police stations even public swimming pools. Evidence has shown that many employers, including our schools and colleges, were slow to recognise the danger of asbestos in their buildings. Asbestos surveys and records of historic surveys were not always maintained, and consequently teachers and children have been needlessly put at risk.
In 1940s and 50s asbestos, imported mainly from Canada, was used widely in the building boom in post war Britain. It was cheap, light, strong and fireproof. It was used commonly in pipe coverings, for insulation board, corrugated roofing, lagging, ceiling and floor tiles as well as fire retardant fabrics. This meant that nearly every publicly used building in the country probably contained asbestos at some point in the past and potentially still does.
The accepted wisdom is that unless asbestos is disturbed it is generally safe. Right now there is a lot of redevelopment, expansion and modernisation of public buildings that potentially will disturb hidden asbestos. There are stringent mandatory regulations concerning work in or in the vicinity of buildings that are known to or potentially may contain asbestos. There has been a lot of debate about whether the safest action for the occupier of the building is to do nothing about existing asbestos provided it is sealed. However if there is a fire, explosion or other disaster anybody coming into contact with the damaged building such as firefighters, police or even cleaners potentially put themselves at risk.
Major industrial areas around Britain’s coast and towns are also hotspots for asbestos. Steelworks, shipyards and oil refineries are all known to have large asbestos legacies. The Lindsey Oil Refinery in North Lincolnshire was in the news recently when a fire resulting from an explosion revealed asbestos at the site. This meant that workers were sent home until further notice while the area was cleared and made safe.
Although importing and using asbestos materials has now been banned in Britain, countries such as Canada, Russia and India are now exporting asbestos typically to the developing world and Eastern Europe. Poor countries like Bangladesh receive asbestos from Canada, the health and safety framework in Bangladesh is not as robust as it is in parts of the developed world with a consequence that many vulnerable people are being put at risk of developing asbestos diseases - including lung cancer and mesothelioma.
The World Health Organisation regards asbestos as one of the most dangerous substances there is because of its potential to cause cancer. Astoundingly the mining industry in those countries where asbestos is a natural resource and still mined, such as Russia and Canada, still refuse publically to accept the wealth of scientific evidence that supports the World Health Organisation’s position. The Chrysotile Institute is a lobby group funded by the Canadian mining industry. The asbestos industry will commission papers seeking to defeat claims made by victims. Such papers typically attack the data of earlier research. A major US manufacturer paid $37,000,000 over a 7 year period between 2001 and 2008 to consultancy firms to present and prepare papers and research in support of their position regarding the safety of chrysotile. In Canada, where white asbestos is still mined for the export trade, a recent study found a seven fold increase in the mortality rate from pleural cancer among those living in the vicinity of the mine.
In parts of California a form of white asbestos occurs naturally, a local study found the risk of death from mesothelioma fell with every 16 kilometre increase in residential distance to the nearest source of asbestos.
Asbestos is completely banned in 52 countries throughout the world. We urge our readers to support a worldwide ban on commercial uses for asbestos. The International Agency for Research on Cancer and the World Health Organisation are in agreement that there is no safe dose.
We urge those still profiting from the asbestos trade to look to the legacy in the UK - for historically it is here that large amounts of the asbestos mined elsewhere, particularly Canada, was destined. By 2050 there will have been 90,000 deaths from mesothelioma in Great Britain. 65,000 of those will have occurred after 2001.
If you are worried about past exposure to asbestos we recommend that you speak to your GP. If you would like legal advice please call our helpline on 0808 129 3320.