We’ve harped on enough about the ongoing risks of asbestos. Thousands of tonnes of asbestos were imported into the UK, and most of it hasn’t left. Instead, it litters old properties and brownfield sites, slowly degrading and waiting to be dealt with. It’s a mess that someone will have to clean up eventually, but nobody seems to be of a mind to.

As a leading provider of asbestos awareness training, however, we see that the highest awareness of asbestos is among contractors, and even then, gaps are emerging. The passing of time has made asbestos seem like less of an issue, and people assume that it’s been dealt with. Asbestos awareness seems to be diminishing – right at the point that the substance is becoming more relevant and more dangerous.

Dangerous complacency

While asbestos training continues to be useful and necessary for the construction industry, asbestos awareness among the public seems to be dropping. Asbestos occupies a similar place to leaded petrol, a solved issue that continues to have some lingering effects, but isn’t something anyone needs to be actively worried about. There has never been a requirement for homeowners to be told about the presence of asbestos, putting people’s safety entirely in the hands of renovators, decorators and other workers, some of whom work informally.

Asbestos in commercial and public properties is required to be logged in an asbestos register, and checked periodically to ensure it is still safe. Yet the containment strategy encouraged by the HSE – to preferentially leave asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) alone if they are in good condition – surely has a time limit. With all asbestos products now at least 25 years old and usually much older, the risk of ACMs degrading and releasing fibres is growing exponentially. And given any level of asbestos exposure is dangerous, there is no room for complacency.

Despite this, there seems to be little urgency to increase the rate of asbestos removal, or to step up inspections. As a result, it’s hard to know what the overall picture of asbestos looks like in the UK in 2024. After a long period of ‘light touch’ enforcement, it’s entirely possible that asbestos is being widely neglected. The chance of this only increases as the specific dangers and awareness about the presence of asbestos decrease over time.

Weighing the risk

What perhaps stands out most in the way asbestos is treated today is how risks are generally managed. Perhaps the most popular and widely shared model for risk management is the Swiss cheese model of accident causation. This model works on a simple premise, which is that the more safeguards you put in place, the smaller the chance of an incident is. The more slices of Swiss cheese you stack on top of each other, the lower the chance is that all of the holes line up.

This is a principle that’s applied in safety critical industries such as aviation, where redundancy upon redundancy exists to cover for the possibility of human error, or the failure of equipment. As a result, air travel is among the safest forms of transport (even in light of Boeing’s recent issues). When we look at asbestos management, how many of these safeguards are there? When there is no safe level of asbestos exposure, every incident should be seen as catastrophic – and yet we treat it much more lightly.

It should be said that the issue of historic asbestos hasn’t been completely ignored. A report by a parliamentary committee in 2022 stated the need to set a deadline for asbestos removal, something the government broadly agreed with. Yet despite this, they rejected the proposed 40-year deadline, and have not yet presented an alternative. This seems unlikely to emerge in an election year, making it a question for the next government.

What needs to change

The 40-year deadline would be a significant statement, and follow in the footsteps of countries like the Netherlands (removing all asbestos roofing by this year) and Poland (removing asbestos from all infrastructure by 2032). The sheer quantity of asbestos in the UK makes these deadlines unrealistic here, but even with the 40-year deadline, incentives may be required to help individuals and businesses deal with asbestos.

This is likely where action has been halted. Providing support for businesses and homeowners to safely remove asbestos would be a significant monetary investment for a reward that can seem intangible. Asbestos-related diseases can take 40 years to manifest, making it another government’s problem. While reducing asbestos exposure would likely save the NHS money in the future, the cost-benefit of removing asbestos today is difficult for a government in a difficult economic position.

This shouldn’t be an excuse. If the general public’s awareness of asbestos was higher, there might be more public pressure on the government to deal with it, and impose the advice it has already been given. Real-terms funding reductions to the HSE are part of the existing problems with asbestos enforcement. The problem is not just that we need to shift focus to removing asbestos, but that the current strategy of maintaining asbestos only works if the government enforces it.

Taking safety seriously

For a government that is looking to shore up its economy and attract outside investment, investing in asbestos removal is a hard sell, but it’s also not irrelevant. Asbestos remains a problem with new builds, refurbishments and existing office space and industrial premises, all of which are vital to a functioning economy. It’s also an issue of perception as much as a threat to health and investment. Taking a lead internationally on asbestos removal – particularly as one of the world’s heaviest users of asbestos historically – would signal to people at home and abroad that the UK is looking forwards to a better, cleaner future.

That kind of rhetoric isn’t insubstantial. Policies targeting cleaner air, better transportation and better access to local amenities have met with resistance in some quarters, but form part of an overall approach to improving physical and mental health outcomes. Asbestos is one component of this drive to clean up Britain, and should not be ignored in favour of focusing solely on air pollution or green spaces, even if these appear to be more important. Whoever is in power come January, we hope they realise this – and see asbestos as a problem for today, not one from the past.

Want to learn more about how to identify and deal with asbestos? Check out our popular Asbestos Awareness online course.