Recently, it was Global Asbestos Awareness Week, which is crucial to Mesothelioma UK, a national charity based in Loughborough that supports those living with asbestos related cancers. I was pleased to secure a Westminster Hall debate, which you can watch on my YouTube channel, where I was able to support their, “Don’t let the dust settle” campaign, highlighting that we need to do much more to limit exposure to asbestos in the workplace which is putting the public in danger. I also appeared on Sky to support the cause.
Freedom of information requests to government departments have found that nearly 81% of schools reported that asbestos was present in their buildings and more than 90% of hospital buildings contained asbestos. Given that asbestos exposure is the single greatest cause of work-related deaths in the UK, these statistics make clear how important it is for us to take action now against asbestos exposure.
Mesothelioma, which accounts for more than half of all asbestos related deaths per year, is not typically detected in the early stages of the disease, as it has a long latency period of 15 to 45 years, with some prolonged cases of 60 years before symptoms show. Therefore, once diagnosed, it is often advanced, so up to 60% of patients die in the first year after diagnosis, with just over five in 100 surviving for five years or more, highlighting the need for action to limit exposure to asbestos.
A number of regulations have been introduced in the past 90 years to try to limit people’s exposure, including in 1999 a full ban on its import, supply and use in manufacture. The Government’s current policy reflects HSE advice, which states that, wherever possible, asbestos-containing materials should be left in situ.
Mesothelioma UK are calling for further regulation of asbestos. They are campaigning for both a central asbestos register to be introduced, and for a deadline to be set for the removal of asbestos from all domestic buildings.
The lack of in-depth and up-to-date data is proving to be a barrier to dealing with the risk posed to the public. A central register would help to alleviate that problem and support a longer-term strategic approach to managing asbestos.
A deadline being set for the removal of asbestos would bring our strategy in line with that of France, where a general plan has been implemented to remove asbestos from every building within 40 years. Currently, the classification of acceptable exposure levels to asbestos fibres in the UK is 10 times greater than that now allowed across Europe.
The current way to deal with asbestos—to leave it in situ—is clearly not working, given that the people affected by asbestos-related cancers are becoming younger and younger. Materials are degrading over time through wear and tear, and are being damaged inadvertently. Research published last year by the Asbestos Testing and Consultancy Association and the National Organisation of Asbestos Consultants identified that more than 70% of asbestos-containing materials managed in situ had deteriorated, indicating that management of the risk was ineffective.
We therefore simply cannot afford to delay asbestos removal further. The UK needs its own asbestos strategy that incorporates this best practice, as well as a timetable for the safe removal of asbestos, prioritising the highest-risk asbestos in settings such as schools and hospitals. Taken together, those two actions will help to focus minds across Government and industry, and will help to drive progress.
As I said in Westminster Hall: “We must put a stop to this. Please, don’t let the dust settle.”
Jane Hunt MP