In August of this year, a small quantity of white chrysotile asbestos material was found washed up on the beach at Leas in Minster on the Isle of Sheppey, south east England. Two months later, further asbestos was discovered on the same stretch of beach, and on nearby Shellness beach.

According to Swale Council, a total of 15 kilos of asbestos has now been retrieved from the area and continuous monitoring is to be maintained. The council also advise that members of the public should, “avoid any suspicious material they may find on the beach.” Previously, temporary warning signs had been erected but local residents are now calling for the beach to be closed and a full investigation to be made.

“Lower risk” statement issued

When the asbestos was first found, a statement issued by the department of Environment and Rural Affairs, who conducted tests on the washed up material, stated that according to Public Health England, white chrysotile asbestos is a “lower risk product and unlikely to pose a significant risk to health.”

However, the statement appears to show that asbestos awareness of the possible risk level to health may not be completely understood.

In 2011, at the Government’s own Office for Science, white chrysotile asbestos was confirmed as a Class 1 carcinogenic substance and they have also stated that it may not be possible “to determine a threshold level below which exposure to ‘pure’ chrysotile could be deemed ‘safe’ for human health. The same applies for exposure to chrysotile from cement during removal and disposal activities.”

The “low risk” status came to be the accepted view around the time when the most toxic asbestos types were banned in the mid 1980s while the use of white asbestos fibres in the manufacture of building insulation materials was allowed to continue until imports were finally banned in 1999.

Structure of asbestos fibres

The reason was based the structure of white chrysotile asbestos fibres, which are longer and thinner, and found to be more flexible than the insoluble rigid, needle fibres of the banned asbestos types. Research has found that inhaled chrysotile fibre particles were less likely to be permanently embedded in the lung linings and more able to be “broken down” leading to a higher number expelled over a shorter period of time.

Yet it is also established and well-known that the presence of asbestos fibres of any type can cause asbestosis diseases, from severe tissue inflammation, scarring of the lung linings (pleural plaques), thickening of the lungs (pleural thickening) and a build up of liquid (pleural effusion). Eventually, tissue cells can become cancerous, forming the tumours of the incurable mesothelioma cancer, which can spread to adjacent tissues and organs.

The Health and Safety Executive have estimated that every year in the UK, 1.8 million people are still being exposed to asbestos, at least 2,000 cases of mesothelioma continue to be diagnosed and 4,000 deaths are recorded from asbestos-related disease.