Asbestos is a material that was widely used as a building material between approximately 1950 - 1970. Whilst asbestos can be dangerous, it does not present a health risk if it is left undisturbed. But if material containing asbestos is damaged, it can release a fine dust that contains asbestos fibres. It is therefore essential that specialists are enlisted to remove asbestos. Owing to the advances in science and medicine, exposure to asbestos fibres has been proven to cause asbestosis and mesothelioma. These conditions significantly damage an individual’s lungs and can substantially reduce their life expectancy. It is estimated that mesothelioma (a form of cancer that develops on the lining of organs) is responsible for at least 5,000 deaths per year, although this may actually be significantly higher. The possibility of this higher figure would be influenced by those who remain undiagnosed.
Recently, the BBC pursued an inquiry into the NHS. It should be noted that a freedom of information request was sent to all 243 NHS Trusts. The result of this line of inquiry indicates that 198 out of the 211 NHS Trusts which responded run hospitals containing asbestos. This equates to 93%. Despite this revelation, NHS Improvement has explained that strict regulations mean that the asbestos in these buildings has been registered and safely contained. Therefore, there is no form of risk to patients or medical professionals. The prominence of asbestos in NHS buildings is partly due to the time of its construction. The latter half of the twentieth century saw the importing of asbestos reach peak levels. Asbestos was banned from being used in construction in 1985. This was due to public health concerns, which were focused on the potential effects of asbestos exposure to building occupants and workers. At the time of writing, the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 are the relevant provisions within the UK. The regulations import standards from the European Union to protect individuals. These regulations prohibit the: use, supply and importation of all asbestos. It should be noted that this legislation prevents new uses of asbestos, but does allow existing asbestos to remain intact on the basis that it is in good condition and undisturbed.
The fallout of this inquiry has resulted in calls for an audit to ascertain the full extent of the problem within the UK. The most prominent figure is Jo Stevens, the Chairperson of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Occupational Health and Safety. Ms Stevens has stressed that long term plans and strategies regarding its removal are needed as there are risks of asbestos being both disturbed or causing issues through deterioration. Whilst it is only a short time since these findings were announced, the government has yet to respond to these calls for action.
Worryingly, this issue has been raised previously and did not result in any major action. The most notable example was in 2017, in the context of hospitals within London, by the BBC. The full of extent of the problem can, however, be appreciated by examining the sheer amount of litigation that has taken place. There have been some 352 claims against NHS Trusts between January 2013 and December 2017. The majority of these claims have been brought by people claiming they had developed asbestos-related diseases from NHS premises. Whilst documents indicate that the pay-out from these cases totals approximately £6.8 million in compensation, the true amount may be far higher as figures may not have been fully disclosed. Most recently, Shropshire NHS Trust faced prosecution regarding an incident involving the removal of asbestos. This incident followed warnings of asbestos exposure after information had been released by a whistle-blower.
The concerns regarding asbestos are not just limited to hospitals. It is also a pressing issue within the education system. There has been a significant amount of litigation which has seen over £10 million being awarded to those exposed to asbestos whilst in school buildings. Whilst promises were made by the government to improve the building quality of public schools, this has yet to materialise and there are still concerns over the safety of pupils. In turn, claims have been made to the effect that the current circumstances surrounding asbestos are a ‘ticking timebomb’. In response to this, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have argued that, if properly managed, asbestos presents a "very low risk" to people in school buildings.
Arguably, the preservation of citizens’ safety should be of paramount importance. However, there has not been a significant passage of time which would allow one to say that there has been a failure act by the Conservative government. It may be the case that the government are reviewing this position and are planning long term strategies on the basis that asbestos poses no threat if left undisturbed. The issue with this approach is that it does not take into consideration unforeseen circumstances or events unfolding such as poor weather conditions etc. There would essentially be no contingency plan. Whether changes are made in the near future remains to be seen, although it is apparent that change is needed.