Climate change demands urgent action, and countries across the world are racing to address it. Net zero targets are driving improvements to energy efficiency, in order to reduce the consumption of dirty fossil fuels. One of these changes is the renovation of old properties, and the addition of better insulation, windows and other features to reduce the need for heating and cooling.

What few people realise – and even fewer governments have addressed – is that this poses a substantial risk of exposing asbestos. The historic contaminant and carcinogen is still in many thousands of buildings, and workers’ rights advocates are agitating for changes before it’s too late. The cost of keeping people safe and the need to protect the planet have to be reconciled – and it needs to happen quickly.

Why is asbestos dangerous?

Most people will be familiar with the dangers of asbestos at this point. A naturally occurring mineral, the fibrous substance was heralded as a miracle material for construction, owing to its fire resistance and insulating properties. It was used widely around the world until the 1970s, when questions around its safety turned to incontrovertible evidence. The most dangerous forms of asbestos were quickly banned, with all forms finally being outlawed in most nations by the early 2000s.

The reason asbestos is so dangerous is the microscopic fibres that it sheds when disturbed. These particles are so small that they can be absorbed into the deepest parts of our lungs, and so jagged that they cause permanent damage to our cells. The result is both lung damage and mutations in the damaged cells, which can cause a variety of lung cancers, as well as a unique and incurable cancer called mesothelioma. There is no safe level of asbestos exposure: the more you breathe in, the more damage is done, and the higher the risk of complications.

Because of the need to rebuild much of the country after World War 2, buildings in the UK, much of mainland Europe, and many other parts of the world remain ridden with asbestos. Asbestos has been confirmed to exist in 75% of UK schools and 8 in 10 hospital trusts, as well as many other public buildings. A substantial quantity of asbestos is also likely to still exist in private homes and other buildings, none of which is accounted for, as there is no legal requirement to track it, or to inform homeowners of its presence.

How is the ‘green revolution’ relevant?

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) deems most asbestos to be safe as long as it remains undamaged, and advises that it should be monitored rather than removed in most cases. A scenario which could lead to asbestos being damaged en masse is a mass construction project – and one may be on the horizon. The increasingly fervent eco agenda promises to revamp many existing buildings to bring them in line with modern energy standards, reducing energy consumption and emissions.

This process might commonly involve adding or replacing insulation, replacing boilers with newer models, or even using gas-free heat pumps to draw heat from the surrounding air.  Structural changes are also likely to be a major part of combating rising temperatures, either by allowing air to circulate better in order to cool down buildings, or by providing added protection from the sun. This will extend beyond the home and into public spaces, allowing people to shop, dine and travel in greater comfort.

Unfortunately, the ultimate consequence of this could be the exposure of asbestos containing materials (ACMs), which were not banned in totality in the European Union until 2005. Thousands of tonnes of the substance remain in buildings and buried in brownfield sites across the continent, often being managed under somewhat lax regulations. The argument which is emerging from unions and other worker advocates is that this poses serious questions over safety – and ultimately the future of these green projects.

Improving asbestos safety standards

Unions are arguing that the current EU regulation on asbestos exposure is too lenient, and with the level of exposure likely as a result of this impending wave of construction work, thousands could die from asbestos-related diseases. Businesses are arguing that applying the most stringent standards cited as a benchmark by these unions – a maximum of 1000 fibres per cubic metre of air – would be prohibitively expensive.

From the business’ standpoint, the equipment required to adequately test for and enforce this level of asbestos, including electronic air quality metres and respiratory protective equipment (RPE), is impractical. Their argument is that this will either disincentivise businesses to invest in green renovations, or cause them to use cheaper contractors, who won’t obey the law anyway. This could not only compromise the response to the climate crisis, but also put more people at risk than simply complying with current standards. 

While there’s a solid argument that the current number of allowable asbestos fibres per cubic metre of air is unsafe – indeed, there is no safe level of asbestos exposure – it has been upheld by the HSE because it strikes a balance between what is safe and what is reasonable. 100,000 fibres per cubic metre may sound like a lot, and it is, but any exposure should be mitigated by RPE and all other possible measures. There is still a risk of contamination with these levels of fibres, but not necessarily a risk to life.

Protecting workers and the planet

The reality of the issue is that lives and climate change prevention are both important, and both directly related. Failing to act on climate change could cost many more lives in the long run. But the legacy of asbestos is also a long one, and the problem of air quality goes beyond asbestos, and into particulates more generally. However harmful to businesses, most have the capacity to act; they just don’t want to. And for those that don’t, there is a simple and compelling argument that governments should simply subsidise the work.

With most asbestos now being more than 40 years old, ACMs are slowly degrading regardless of how well they are maintained. It’s a problem that arguably should have been addressed already, as ably demonstrated by the number of instances of accidental exposure, either through negligence by construction companies or lack of information and protection for employees. Fining the companies who are caught in the act by rare HSE inspections simply isn’t enough to stop other rogue companies doing the same.

Both the Treasury and the HSE need to reckon with this reality, and accept that in the face of EU and US standards that already exceed UK ones (and are likely to become even stricter), there needs to be a proactive effort to remove asbestos from buildings, rather than just containing it. Failing to do so will put many thousands more lives at risk – and fatally undermine efforts to protect the UK and the world at large from the effects of climate change.