It is a shame on our nation that we have the world’s highest rates of asbestos cancer. It is not a surprise, however, when you understand how many of our buildings are infested with the carcinogenic material.
Workers I speak to are not always aware of the risk of asbestos, deeming it either a thing of the past, or a risk reserved for those in certain industries.
Teachers, nurses and librarians, for example, tend not to know they are often just metres away from a substance that could cause them fatal illness. This is something the TUC is trying to change.
So, you might have noticed a recent wave of research on asbestos presence in public buildings. If you haven’t, here’s a recap:
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health released data on asbestos in NHS Trusts in London and Scotland. It found that hundreds of hospitals, surgeries and clinics contained the carcinogenic material.
This followed research by the same group of MPs and Peers, which discovered thousands of local authority buildings with asbestos in them, including town halls, libraries and leisure centres.
Solicitor firm Irwin Mitchell also released a raft of data on asbestos by local authority area, finding the majority of public buildings owned by numerous councils were full of asbestos, including Bristol, Glasgow, Bradford and Buckinghamshire. Among them, schools were some of the worst affected.
I know what some will say: asbestos is fine to leave in place, so long as it is not disturbed. It poses minimal risk, if any at all. Trade unions reject that argument. If asbestos is in a building, it will eventually become disturbed. There can be few cupboards, boilers, panels and pipes that have had no work done on them since the 1970s, when asbestos use was at its peak.
There is therefore considerable doubt that most of the asbestos that is to be found in buildings is going to lie undisturbed for the next 40 years (a timeframe for removal the UK government recently rejected).
What’s more, we need to upgrade many buildings anyway, if we are serious about improving insulation, ventilation and meeting net zero targets.
Take schools, as one example. On the one hand, the Department for Education has admitted a serious risk of collapse in many school buildings, with the prospect deemed ‘very likely’ in hundreds.
Given we know more than 80 per cent of schools contain asbestos, and that the rate of mesothelioma diagnoses among former teachers is rising rapidly, the need for safe removal is urgently required to protect staff and students. In the past six months alone, four schools in England had to close after asbestos was disturbed.
As well as working with unions and their health and safety representatives to identify risk, and keep management in check on asbestos management, I also work alongside asbestos support groups who protect the people worst affected.
With such high rates of asbestos cancer in Britain, you’d think we’d have a super system for supporting patients suffering the fatal cancers it causes. Not quite. Timely turnarounds on compensation schemes are under attack, with the planned closure of the site which processes them (see the ‘Save Phoenix House’ campaign).
Charities and victim support groups are stretched, as the number of diagnoses rises year on year.
As well as providing adequate support, and research, for those affected, the only real way to prevent asbestos-related illness in the long term is to remove the substance once and for all.
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.
Shelly Asquith is Health, safety and wellbeing policy officer at the Trades Union Congress (TUC)
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