Many people believe that asbestos deaths must be a thing of the past, when working conditions were worse than they are now and less was known. Whilst there is some truth in the fact that legislation protects us from asbestos exposure, that does not mean that the problem has gone away.
- Firstly, symptoms appear about 20 years after initial exposure. Cases should have tailed off significantly, but they have not.
- Secondly, because many buildings still contain asbestos (we survey buildings every day and see it).
- Thirdly, knowledge of and attitudes to asbestos safety are not where they should be. We see exposure and potential exposure far too frequently when there should be management and mitigation.
When will people stop dying from asbestos exposure?
Different types of asbestos were outlawed in the UK between the 1970s and 1999. Chrysotile was the last to be banned in 1999. This is the only type that causes asbestosis (scarring and reduced elasticity of the lungs which leads to death). So, with at least 23 years since all asbestos was completely outlawed as construction materials, we should ideally be seeing the end of cases.
The types of asbestos that could cause illness and death from small amounts of exposure were banned the soonest, in the 1970s and up to 1985 (37 years ago). These are directly linked with cancers, particularly lung cancers, including mesothelioma.
Long term exposure to Chrysotile should not have happened in the last 20 years because of the regulation. But deaths from all types of asbestos have remained high.
What are the most recent figures?
The figures produced by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) are contained within ‘Asbestos-related disease statistics, Great Britain 2021’
Asbestos cases and deaths 1980 to 2020
(Contains public sector information published by the Health and Safety Executive and licensed under the Open Government Licence).
These are pre-pandemic figures because they relate to 2019 and 2020 (in the case of Industrial Injuries Benefit Disablement (IIDB) cases). All of the categories of cases and deaths had started to decline after rising steadily since 1980 when the figures begin.
They show that total deaths from various cancers and asbestosis number more than 5,000 per year. Asbestosis deaths are the smallest in number, with thousands caused by the various cancers. This would suggest to us that exposure to the most dangerous types of asbestos continued way beyond the introduction of legislation. These deaths can be caused by small amounts of exposure, not necessarily over the long term.
What we see in our work
We find all types of asbestos and differing product still present when we survey industrial, commercial, and residential properties. This is allowed, as long as it is documented, managed, and risks mitigated. Sadly, that is not always the case.
We see products that were banned in the 1970s and mid 80s, such as asbestos pipe lagging, insulating boards, even sprayed coatings. We also see so-called ‘low-risk’ materials where the asbestos content is low or it is bonded with other materials. But these are not low-risk when they are sanded and drilled releasing dust and fibres into the air. This applies to cement, bitumens, mastics, window putties, floor tiles, textured coatings (artex), and gaskets etc. But the list of asbestos-containing materials is very long.
What do the trends mean
The deaths are not coming down very quickly. Current and future deaths are likely to be from finding and disturbing asbestos-containing materials rather than from the installation of new materials. So, awareness amongst construction and trades professionals is vital.
There are still far too many instances of maintenance work being carried out on buildings in which asbestos surveys have never been done or have been done but are not referred to. Or, sometimes, the wrong type of survey is done or the survey doesn’t cover the relevant parts of the building or doesn’t go beyond the surface. All of these things can be easily rectified by consulting a professional.
What does the future look like?
To be sure, we need to see the longer-term trends. It will be useful to see what the next few years of data does to the trendlines.
The HSE report predicted a levelling-off rather than a steep decline in cases. They expect cases to remain at similar rates for the ‘rest of the decade’.
We wonder whether case reporting will vary from 2020 and 2021 when business and society were disrupted by the pandemic, compared with 2022 and beyond.
The figures are also likely to be impacted by the high additional death rate caused by the Coronavirus pandemic. Asbestos deaths are often of people over 75, so this would be a ‘comorbidity’. Time will tell what the effect of that will have been.