Asbestos building material

Asbestos-related cancer deaths fall but ‘time bomb’ threatens

HSE says number of people developing asbestos-related illness is predicted to fall as we move further from asbestos ban in 1999
17 August 2023 , Steve Smethurst

Government argues that asbestos is safe if not disturbed, but trade unions maintain that only by removing asbestos from public buildings can we stop thousands of early deaths

The HSE annual figures for mesothelioma, a cancer caused by past exposure to asbestos, show 2,268 people died from the disease in 2021. This is compared to the average of 2,520 deaths per year over the period 2012-2019, and 302 fewer than in 2020.

Asbestos, a carcinogenic mineral, was used extensively in construction until banned in 1999, however asbestos-related diseases can take decades to develop and most people suffering today were exposed pre-1999.

Current regulations state that where asbestos is present in buildings it must be managed, maintained in a good condition, and stay undisturbed. If this level of protection cannot be achieved, then asbestos must be removed.

An HSE spokesperson said: “These regulations have led to a significant reduction in exposure and the number of people developing asbestos-related illness is predicted to fall as we get further from the date asbestos was banned in 1999.”

However, the TUC is calling for new legislation requiring removal of all asbestos from public buildings. In a recent blog post, Shelly Asquith, TUC Health, Safety and Wellbeing Officer wrote: “The government’s argument is that asbestos is safe to leave in place, so long as it is not disturbed.

“Trade unions reject that argument. We know that if asbestos is in a building, it will eventually be disturbed. Only by removing asbestos from all public buildings can we avoid future risk of exposure and stop the thousands of early – and entirely preventable – deaths from this dreadful, fatal illness.”

“The current ratio of 17 deaths from mesothelioma to every workplace death should be a wake-up call.”

Charles Pickles, an independent campaigner and founder of the Airtight on Asbestos Campaign, said teachers and nurses have a much higher incidence of mesothelioma than the general public.

“In addition, the HSE figures do not include all those who die above the age of 75 - if these deaths were included, the figure would be twice as high. The current policy of ‘management in-situ’ is failing. The current ratio of 17 deaths from mesothelioma to every workplace death should be a wake-up call.”

Pickles pointed to the 2022 recommendations of a cross-party Parliamentary Work and Pension Select Committee. He said: “They called for a National Asbestos Strategy, prioritising the removal of high-risk asbestos, enabled by a National Asbestos Database, and they recommended greater research into asbestos air-monitoring to provide reassurance while we continue to occupy buildings with asbestos.”

Liz Darlison, Chief Executive at Mesothelioma UK, the national asbestos-related cancer charity said that the UK has the highest incidence of mesothelioma in the world “and this continues to rise”.

She said: “It's paramount that we work with government to address this and avoid the time bomb of future generations with occupational cancers.”

• CIEH is holding an online ‘Bitesize training: asbestos awareness and management’ course on September 7th, 2023. Click here for more details.

• The HSE has launched a campaign called Asbestos and You to raise awareness of the risks associated with the substance

Image credit: Shutterstock

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