Exposure to asbestos in the UK is mistakenly thought of as a rare occurrence, mostly confined to isolated instances when remains of the material are uncovered in a premises, most frequently when schools, hospitals or department stores are about to be renovated or demolished.
It may explain why nearly every week reports of workmen and property owners appear to be incapable of recognising and correctly dealing with the asbestos when it is regularly discovered. Their apparent wilful disregard or lack of basic asbestos awareness to the continuing risks, inevitably, leads to a failure to properly and legally contain and dispose of the material by following the correct procedures set out in the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006.
The reality is that the white chrysotile form of asbestos was still being used as a insulating and fire retardant material in the construction industry until the European Commission ruled in 1999 that products made of white asbestos would be completely prohibited – as of January 1, 2005! In other words, use and exposure to asbestos may have continued up to less than ten years ago.
Although considered a less toxic form of the mineral when compared to the more dangerous brown asbestos (amosite) and blue asbestos (crocidolite), which were both banned in 1985, white asbestos is still highly volatile as it is often found in a fragile and disintegrating condition. If disturbed, the asbestos fibres are released in to the air as dust and are easily inhaled. Fibres trapped in the linings of the lungs (pleura) can eventually turn tissue cells cancerous and form tumours, which can spread to other areas of the body.
The known gestation period of between 15 to 50 years means that the first mesothelioma or asbestosis symptoms are not recognised until the disease is at Stage 3 or 4 and survival rate from confirmed diagnosis is around 4 months to one year.
Mortality figures from asbestosis diseases and the malignant incurable mesothelioma cancer continue to rise. According to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), more than 1.8 million people are annually exposed to asbestos in the UK with at least 2,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed every year. Asbestos exposure is expected to claim 5,000 deaths each year by 2015 and a further 45,000 from mesothelioma forecast by 2050.
The World Health Organization has estimated that worldwide, over 92,250 people died of mesothelioma in a 15-year period from 1994 to 2008, with two-thirds of those deaths having occurred since 2000.