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Climate change - a risk or opportunity for asbestos related deaths?

The retro fitting of buildings to meet net zero requirements mean more materials containing asbestos will be disturbed in the coming decades. This puts people at risk of exposure to this potentially fatal substance.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibre which was widely used in the construction industry from the 1950s onwards. It has long been known that asbestos is a risk to health and, when breathed in, it enters the lungs and can gradually damage them. This can cause various conditions including mesothelioma, a terminal cancer.

According to The Work and Pensions Select Committee, asbestos remains the biggest cause of work related deaths in the UK with more than 5,000 such fatalities recorded in 2019.

Why is asbestos still in our public buildings?

Although its use was banned in the UK in 1999, left over asbestos can still be widely found in schools, hospitals and other public buildings.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that 300,000 non-domestic buildings and many more homes may still contain asbestos materials. Despite calls for its removal, there is currently no target date for the eradication of asbestos in public buildings or private homes in the UK.

Asbestos removal works are very costly and, as the fibres need to be breathed in to cause harm, the risk can be reduced by sealing it and properly labelling it.

What is the risk if left in place?

Although ‘extreme’ exposure to asbestos may be a thing of the past, sadly cases of mesothelioma are increasing among professionals such as teachers, doctors and hospital staff.

Asbestos in public buildings should be closely monitored and managed and staff should be given adequate training to protect them. Sadly this does not always happen and it was recently found 23% of schools across England failed to inform the government if their buildings contained asbestos and how they were managing the risks.

Failure to monitor and manage the asbestos risks the material deteriorating or being disturbed without staff of pupils being aware of it, exposing them to harmful fibres.

NHS Resolution, which deals with litigation for the health service, deals with about 50 claims year relating to asbestos or mesothelioma.

According to the National Education Union, at least 200 teachers have died from mesothelioma since 2001.

The risk or opportunity for asbestos removal

Against the backdrop of the UK’s race to reach net zero by 2050, the climate crisis has forced all sectors to consider and reduce their emissions. This will mean some serious updates to buildings to increase their efficiency.

At the same time, MPs are calling for a 40 year deadline for all asbestos to be removed from public and commercial buildings.

This provides a fantastic opportunity to make our public buildings both safe and sustainable for the future. But, if not properly funded and managed, upgrades could disturb asbestos fibres, endangering staff and others.

Sadly, the Work and Pensions Committee currently has concerns about the absence of a clear and comprehensive strategy for asbestos removal. The Committee is calling on the government to set a clear deadline starting with the highest risk settings such as schools. It suggests that “we need a pan-government and system wide strategy for the long term removal of asbestos founded on strong evidence of what is best from a scientific, epidemiological, and behavioural point of view."

It is very much hoped that the government will listen and take advantage of the opportunity at hand here.

Read more about Irwin Mitchell’s own research into asbestos in public buildings.

What to do if you have been exposed to asbestos

“Mesothelioma is a devastating disease, and we are seeing more and more teachers and doctors being diagnosed and struggling to work out where they have encountered asbestos. We have had the great honour in helping these people to bring compensation claims and obtain some justice”.

Fortunately, most people exposed to some asbestos fibres will go on to have no ill effects but, if you or a loved one has been unlucky enough to be diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease, our solicitors can help. Our expert team has over 30 years’ experience and has worked on landmark asbestos claims in the Supreme Court.

Contact us today for a free initial consultation.