Experts Estimate Around 87,000 UK Public Buildings Contain Asbestos
More than 4,500 public buildings across 20 of the highest populated council areas in the UK still contain asbestos, law firm Irwin Mitchell can reveal.
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The figures have been provided by local authorities as part of new research undertaken by the legal experts who support clients affected by exposure to the hazardous substance. Many of those are diagnosed with mesothelioma, a terminal cancer of the lining of the lungs, or asbestosis, a chronic lung disease, as a consequence of their exposure.
In April 2022, MPs recommended a 40-year deadline be set for the removal of asbestos from the estimated 300,000 public and commercial buildings that still contain it. However, the report from the Work and Pensions Committee was rejected by the Government.
Following the announcement, Irwin Mitchell contacted 20 local authorities in the UK to gain an insight into the true picture of asbestos in public buildings.
In response to requests submitted by law firm Irwin Mitchell under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI), it was revealed that 4,533 public buildings across the 20 councils – ranging from as far north as Glasgow to as far south as Cornwall – still contain asbestos, averaging around 225 buildings per local authority. Schools are the largest category of buildings affected, making up almost a quarter of the total number. This is followed by the likes of community centres, agricultural and park buildings, office space, libraries, leisure facilities and residential settings.
The legal experts believe, if the data provided is repeated around the country, it’s estimated that across the 387 local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales combined, there are around 87,000 public buildings containing asbestos.
The figures also show that only 291 buildings across the 20 local authorities in question had asbestos removed from them in the last five years, but that 3,263 had had a survey undertaken within the same timeframe.
The legal experts further estimate that, if removals continued at the current rate, only around 2,300 of the 4,500 buildings across the 20 councils would have asbestos removed within the next 40 years, the recommended deadline. As a result of the calculation, it would mean the speed of the removal process would need to be doubled to meet the requirement.
Expert Opinion“Most people associate asbestos with historical exposure in factories or construction work, but these latest figures highlight the extensive risk still posed by the deadly substance across the UK in everyday buildings used by the public.
“At Irwin Mitchell, sadly, we come across families and individuals affected by asbestos most often after coming into contact with it in their workplace, and to have it confirmed that it’s not yet been eradicated from a large number of public buildings is incredibly concerning.
“One of the main problem areas is revealed to be schools, which are obviously densely populated with pupils, teachers and other school workers for long hours at a time. It’s extremely worrying that so many still contain asbestos, essentially putting children at risk every day.
“Whilst some of the asbestos may not yet be deemed harmful, once it’s disturbed or in a state of disrepair it can quickly become very dangerous, and with many of our public buildings being old and maintenance budgets being stretched, it’s a huge concern.” Adrian Budgen, Partner
The 20 local authorities approached by Irwin Mitchell were as follows –
- Barnet Council;
- Birmingham City Council;
- Bristol City Council;
- BCP Council for Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole;
- City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council;
- Buckinghamshire Council;
- Cardiff Council;
- Cheshire East Council;
- Cornwall Council;
- Croydon Council;
- Durham County Council;
- City of Edinburgh Council;
- Glasgow City Council;
- Kent County Council;
- Kirklees Council;
- Leeds City Council;
- Liverpool City Council;
- Manchester City Council;
- Sheffield City Council;
- Wiltshire Council.
BCP Council had 1001 public and non-public buildings with asbestos, with three having undergone removal in the past five years.
This was closely followed by Buckinghamshire with 712 buildings, but 75 removals had taken place.
Meanwhile, Barnet was lowest with 51 buildings containing asbestos. Leeds failed to provide any data due to the council saying its records were not recorded centrally. Birmingham was one of the councils who did not respond with specific figures, but did state that all its buildings are managed for compliance, with “asbestos being one of the risks considered on an ongoing basis.”
Traditionally, people such as factory and construction workers, carriage and ship-builders, plasterers, electricians and plumbers were most exposed to asbestos but, over the past 20 years, there has been an increasing number of people developing asbestos-related illnesses from more indirect sources such as family members washing work clothes covered in asbestos dust or non-industrial exposure.
Liz Darlison, Chief Executive Officer of national asbestos-related cancer charity, Mesothelioma UK said: "The legacy of asbestos in public buildings and the subsequent exposures of people working in or passing through these asbestos sites is an ongoing national tragedy.
"Despite the UK officially banning asbestos in 1999 and as these figures compiled by Irwin Mitchell show, it is still very much present and the risk of exposure is with us every day. We do not have a cure for mesothelioma, but it’s a preventable cancer for future generations with the removal of asbestos from all of our buildings. We will continue to work with the Government and all stakeholders to lobby for and target the eradication of this deadly substance."
Adrian added: “The data collated from our FOI requests demonstrate that asbestos remains a clear and present danger. It was therefore deeply disappointing that the call put forward last April, for a 40-year deadline for its removal, was rejected. While we understand the logistical and financial scale of the challenge of removing it safely, it’s inherently dangerous and simply can’t be left in situ.
“We’ve known the dangers of asbestos for several decades now, with its use outlawed for more than 20 years, yet there’s still an ongoing debate around whether to remove it from our schools. It’s also very concerning that our estimations suggest that the 40 year deadline previously recommended wouldn’t be enough time for all removals to be undertaken given the current pace.
“More needs to be done to help protect people and we call on the Government to approve the recommendations of the Select Committee Report, accelerate the removal process and ensure asbestos is extracted from all public buildings within the given timeframe – or preferably sooner.”
Irwin Mitchell has supported several clients whose exposure to asbestos took place in public buildings. Learn more about Rose Hall, 60, who received a settlement from Leeds City Council after she was exposed to asbestos while a pupil at a local school.