In an article published today, Treven Pyles from US health and safety advisers EHS explains why asbestos is still ‘a considerable threat’ to our health.
Why is there so much asbestos around?
Although asbestos was first used by people in the Stone Age, its use became widespread around the time of the Second World War. Treven Pyles says it was hailed as an almost magical material. It was attractive because of its strength, durability, and resistance to heat, chemicals and electricity. Above all, it was very cheap to mine and easy to work with.
Why did attitudes change?
Scientists first recognised the dangers posed by asbestos at the end of the Nineteenth Century. By the 1980s there was mounting evidence that it is extremely hazardous. The tiny microscopic fibres released when people are working with asbestos, and as it gradually fragments with age, lodge in the body. This can have a very serious impact on some people’s longterm health. Although they usually take a long time to develop, the outcome is a number of very nasty and incurable diseases. These include some cancers. After mounting pressure, asbestos was finally banned in the UK in 1999.
Why is asbestos still dangerous?
Asbestos remains dangerous because it was used extensively in the building trade. Treven Pyles says it is present in ’tiles, flooring, insulation, electrical applications, heating and cooling systems, windows and roofing’ materials. This list is not exhaustive. Among other things, it was also used in the UK to make guttering, drain pipes and fascia boards. All buildings erected between the 1940s and the mid-1980s are likely to contain at least some asbestos.
Mr Pyles says ‘this puts workers conducting maintenance, renovation or demolition at risk of exposure to asbestos fibres.’ Because the asebstos is hidden from view, or its presence has not been disclosed, they are often unaware of the dangers.
What’s the solution?
An asbestos survey should be carried out before this type of work is done. In public buildings there should also be a register of the asbestos and regular inspections to check whether it is deteriorating. However, Treven Pyles suggests that ‘a lack of awareness’ and other competing priorities mean that often managing the asbestos or planning for its removal ‘is postponed to a later time’.
This means tradespeople such as plumbers, ‘painters, electricians and floor tilers’ may still be exposed to asbestos and release fibres into the air while they are working. Decaying asbestos may also be quietly shedding fibres every day. So ‘asbestos products’ in our buildings ‘will continue to pose a risk for the next generation of workers’ and to people who live, study or work in them.
What’s the solution? One suggestion is to monitor the air in buidings to see if asbestos fibres are present. However, the only safe solution is to remove it. This is why we are campaigning for zero asbestos in schools, hospitals, colleges, homes and other workplaces.
Read Treven Pyles’ article in EHSToday.