From its introduction into the UK from the 1830s, asbestos was increasingly used as a low cost insulating material throughout the 20th century. It was not until the first Asbestos Regulations from the late 1960s/1970s onwards, in a formally declared asbestos awareness of the tremendous risk posed to workers, that an attempt was made to limit the inhaling of the dangerous fibres, which become imbedded within the lungs and membrane cavities.
Consequently, the long latency periods often meant that the earliest signs of mesothelioma cancer or asbestosis symptoms would not emerge until many decades later, when often, the unfortunate victim would only survive for a further, few months after diagnosis.
The construction industry, in particular, mass-produced building material for ceiling tiles, wall tiles, pipe and boiler insulation, and coatings. Products, such as plaster, which crumble easily through touch or even through air movement are considered to be friable and disintegrating asbestos can easily release fine asbestos fibres into the air.
Today, there are still many domestic dwellings, commercial premises, and most notably, around fourteen thousand school buildings built between 1945 and 1975, which used large quantities of chrysotile (white), amosite (brown) and crocidolite (blue) asbestos and still contain potentially dangerous levels of chrysotile (white) asbestos materials, if disturbed or not properly contained.
From the 50’s until the 80’s, white asbestos fibres (Chrysotile) were used in polyvinyl plastic floor tiles and stair nosings, commonly found in offices and factories, and notably in stairwells. Polymer-formed plastics do not decompose and the asbestos fibres remain protected for many years. Asbestos was also present in the bitumen adhesive used to affix the tiles to the floor and in the paper backing (100% Chrysotile), also found on some linoleums.
It was not until the mid 1980s that the UK’s Asbestos Regulations sought to ban the import and use of the more dangerous crocidolite (blue asbestos) and amosite (brown asbestos), and it was well into the early 1990s – just twenty years ago – that some usage of chrysotile (white) asbestos was actively prohibited.
While it’s certainly true that non-friable products such as plastic floor tiles and cement boards can safely be left intact as posing little danger even when slightly damaged, bare asbestos insulation board (AIB) and sprayed coating – extensively used in public buildings between 1935 and 1971 – will release fibres every time a door opens if there are cracks or holes in their surface treatment.
Between 1981 to 2008, data gathered from disablement benefit files reveal that mesothelioma cases had risen, with over 2,000 cases of the disease reported in 2006 and mesothelioma claims predicted to continue until at least 2035.