The risk to health of exposure to asbestos fibres in 2013 is still a priority issue for the Health and Safety Executive(HSE). The concern for continuing to raise asbestos awareness and safeguarding thousands of workers from any potential exposure, no matter how small, has also become a defining goal for the many mesothelioma and asbestosis support groups around the UK.

The continuing, frequent number of investigations carried out by HSE demonstrates that there is still a significant degree of confusion over the presence and likely risk of finding asbestos in the fabric of a building or a “safe” number of airborne particles present during a given working period.

HSE research

The level of concern has led HSE to commission a research project to determine the concentration of asbestos, which becomes airborne as a result of typical work activities carried out by construction, maintenance and trade occupation workers.

Although the use of asbestos was first banned in Britain nearly thirty years ago and imports of the so-called “low-risk” white chrysotile asbestos halted in 1999, the impression can be formed that the risk is now lessened by the passage of time. Or there is unlikely to be any asbestos to be found in buildings today. It can also be assumed that it is only those former workers in asbestos-using industries who were at most risk and became victims of asbestos-related diseases.

The reality is that more than 1.8 million people are annually exposed to asbestos in the UK and it is estimated that four million properties, including around three quarters of all schools, still contain significant quantities of asbestos materials.

Figures released by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) show nearly 100 more people died of mesothelioma in 2010 than in 2008. In 1968, the total number of mesothelioma deaths was 153. By 2008, the figure for mesothelioma had increased to 2,249, rising to 2,321 deaths in 2009 and again to 2,347 in 2010.

By the end of October 2012, it was estimated that asbestos-related, occupational cancer had caused the deaths of 4,500 people – or 56 per cent of 8,000 fatalities each year in England and Wales.

Most at risk

Today, the most at risk from exposure to asbestos building materials are those in the construction, demolition, building and related trade occupations, particularly plumbers, electricians, painters and decorators.

The research, for which HSE is currently in the final stages of preparation, will involve workers wearing sampling devices to capture airborne asbestos fibres, wherever they are working and as they undertake their normal work activities. The study is intended to provide data on the typical concentrations of asbestos fibre particles and will inform HSE of the future the risk presented by asbestos whenever it is discovered.

Group 1 Carcinogenic

White chrysotile asbestos is still classified as a Group 1 Carcinogenic, and if found in a worn, fragile and disintegrating condition will easily release fibre dust when any attempt to handle or remove is made.

According to The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002, the control limits for asbestos exposure to white asbestos (chrysotile) are:

(a) 0.3 fibres per millilitre of air averaged over a continuous period of 4 hours.
(b) 0.9 fibres per millilitre of air averaged over a continuous period of 10 minutes.