Despite being banned more than 20 years ago, asbestos remains a lingering and persistent threat. Reports indicate that some asbestos is still present in 85% of UK schools and 90% of NHS trusts, and that’s just in the public sector. Asbestos in private properties is less well documented – and there’s no obligation whatsoever to report asbestos in private housing. The result is that asbestos continues to cause thousands of deaths in the UK each year.
While this isn’t going to change overnight, a new report by MPs may herald a change in attitudes. The report from the Work and Pensions Committee has reiterated the ongoing dangers of asbestos, and most crucially, the need to actively address asbestos degradation and exposure. Addressing this is likely to mean a radical shift in the ‘monitor and maintain’ approach – and could finally herald the end of asbestos exposure.
The state of asbestos legislation
The exact toll of asbestos in the UK is hard to gauge. Despite the material having been banned from use in 2000, it was so heavily relied upon from the 1950s to the 1980s that it remains in a large proportion of properties around the country. Because of its seemingly miraculous ability to insulate against fire and electricity, asbestos products were used for cavity insulation, lagging, roof tiles, partition walls, and even household items such as toilet seats and ironing boards.
While some of the most dangerous and obvious asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) have been removed, many more innocuous forms of asbestos are still in place. Artex wall and ceiling textures that contain small amounts of asbestos are still ubiquitous around the country, often unknown to the buildings’ tenants. In other cases, ACMs are known about and catalogued, but poorly monitored and maintained, allowing them to degrade and release deadly fibres.
The modern controls on asbestos come too late for many victims. With asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma often taking several decades to develop, most victims today are from historic exposure. Around 5000 deaths are attributed to workplace asbestos exposure each year, though this figure is likely to be far higher in reality, as deaths of individuals over the age of 75 are not included in workplace fatality statistics.
What changes are being proposed?
The actions the Work and Pensions Committee (WPC) report is proposing are twofold: to establish a timescale and strategy for removing all asbestos, and to increase funding to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) to support more effective inspections and enforcement of asbestos law. 40 years has been set as the target deadline based on what is deemed reasonable, both in terms of costs and the sheer scale of asbestos contamination.
The WPC based its findings on evidence that the HSE was not doing enough to assess the current risk of asbestos exposure in non-domestic buildings. It cited accounts of workplace exposure, as well as a 60% drop in asbestos enforcement notices, despite no proof that asbestos compliance had improved. It also cites the increase in retrofitting buildings with things like insulation to meet ‘net zero’ targets, which will inevitably increase the risk of exposure.
The report goes so far as to criticise the HSE for its inaction, and calls for ‘urgent’ improvement of the evidence around safer asbestos removal and disposal. The blame is split between the government for not funding the HSE sufficiently, and the HSE itself for not prioritising asbestos exposure, and failing either to properly enforce its own rules or develop a better strategy for asbestos management and inspections.
How likely is asbestos law to change?
It should be said that reports from parliamentary committees are recommendations, and Parliament is not obliged to act on them. The WPC made similar recommendations in 2020, which have so far not been acted upon. In some ways this is not surprising, as any legislation on asbestos has to clear a number of hurdles, not least the opinions and interests of MPs.
There are vested interests both in and outside of Parliament in reducing costs for landlords. 18% of all MPs and a quarter of Conservative MPs are landlords, and lobbying from landlords is substantial. With the cost of removing asbestos en masse likely to be extremely high, it could be posited that many MPs are content to rely on the current advice that asbestos can be safely managed, even if it conflicts with the consensus elsewhere.
Many people would also argue that asbestos management is fine as it is. But this ignores both the impossibility of gathering real evidence on asbestos exposure – asbestos-related diseases don’t develop for multiple decades – and the higher standards for asbestos exposure applied in the United States and Europe. Not only are UK regulations more lax than many first world countries, they also aren’t being applied properly, as the report ably demonstrates.
Despite this, there are signs beyond this report that the current position on asbestos is untenable. As well as changing opinions elsewhere, the UK has been under heavy pressure to improve its environmental policies in a number of areas, particularly concerning air pollution. If regulation is implemented to reduce particulates in areas around schools and hospitals – two of the biggest problem areas in terms of ongoing health effects – it would be almost impossible to ignore the similar threat posed by asbestos in those exact same areas.
While this report by the Work and Pensions Committee is unlikely to see immediate or dramatic action, it does demonstrate that asbestos is an open and pertinent issue, and one that is attracting the attention of lawmakers. With concerns having been raised for many years about the presence of asbestos in public buildings – and the lax rules on its removal, disposal and monitoring – this could be the wake-up call the government needs to instigate serious change.
What remains is for the public to continue to agitate for improvements to asbestos law, both to bring it into line with our partners in Europe and America and to take our own initiative. As long as asbestos remains in public or private buildings, it continues to pose a serious and long-term risk to health – making it an urgent and ever-present issue for millions across the country.