The need to still have and even to expand the capacity of asbestos waste depots installed in major waste and recycling plants around the country is a constant reminder of the tragic legacy and ever present dangers of the UK’s asbestos past.

At the peak of Britain’s asbestos use between 1940 and the final import ban on white chrysotile in 1999, a total of 5.3 million tons had been used as the staple material for producing insulation and fireproofing products in most areas of building, manufacturing and engineering.

Three decades after asbestos was banned, many former exposed workers are still losing their lives to asbestosis diseases and the incurable mesothelioma cancer as the death rate continues to climb. According to Health & Safety Executive (HSE) most recent figures, the UK’s annual mesothelioma death rate had risen to 2,291 in 2011.

It has been variously estimated that between 500,000 and 1.5 million properties still retain hidden asbestos-containing materials, which are only discovered when asbestos surveys are carried out or uncovered by building contractors during renovations.

All waste asbestos is required by the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006/12 to be disposed of by a strict containment and recycling procedure.

Community campaigns

Today, increased asbestos awareness among ordinary British men and women to the potential health risks can often lead to determined community campaigns to ensure that never again can their lives be fatally threatened by the presence of the deadly mineral fibres, especially during waste recycling.

In 2012, planning permission for the planned disposal of 645,000 tons of asbestos and other hazardous waste at Stowey Quarry in Chew Valley was stopped a second time in 12 months by the local community, fearful of the danger to a nearby reservoir providing 50 million litres of water to the surrounding area.

However, not all campaigns produce similar results. In 2013, residents of the Medway area of south east England opposed plans to turn part of a waste site into a depot handling asbestos waste because it was situated in a residential area.

However, nine months on and following an appeal, the plans have been approved by the planning inspectors. A section of the depot will be used to transfer asbestos in sealed double bags between vans and locked skips for storage before being removed every two weeks for disposal. 24 hour surveillance will also be in operation to ensure the depot does not attract illegal fly tippers trying to dump broken up asbestos, such as wall board or corrugated roof sheeting.

Long history of using asbestos

It is hardly surprising that the local community have been extremely worried about the proposed asbestos storage. Sensitivities were bound to run high given the history of asbestos with the Medway area, a centre for the shipbuilding industry with a long history of using asbestos materials in both naval and commercial fit outs.

As far back as 1965, a survey undertaken at the Devonport Naval Dockyard, found that that 4-5 per cent of men aged 50-59 years showed lung abnormalities likely to have been caused by exposure to asbestos dust. Nearly 50 years later it was the Medway area that recorded the second highest mesothelioma fatality rate of more than 100 deaths between 2006 and 2012.