Thirty years after use of the toxic insulation was first banned the risk of occupational exposure to asbestos in Britain in 2015 continues to make headlines. There could be as many as 30,000 police officers who have breathed in fibre dust particles in buildings containing asbestos insulation during fire arms training between 1980 and as recently as 2007, according to the Metropolitan Police.
From the 1950s through to the late 1970s, the UK increased asbestos imports from around 124,000 tons to 180,000 tons every year. Asbestos fibres were widely used in manufacturing insulation and fireproofing materials installed in many public, private, residential and commercial buildings. An estimated half a million premises at least are thought to still contain asbestos hidden in the walls, ceilings or roofs.
Asbestos awareness campaigns
Spokesmen for construction industry associations have repeatedly warned of the dangers of exposure to asbestos hidden within the fabric of any building constructed up until 2000. Bodies such as The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the numerous asbestos victim and mesothelioma support groups are tireless in driving home their asbestos awareness campaigns warning that anyone could be at risk of exposure, no matter where they live or work.
It’s a message that has been continually reinforced, especially since 1999 when all asbestos was finally officially banned in the UK, and again most recently by academic research conducted in Edinburgh, which concludes that most of the population has been exposed to low levels of asbestos at some time during their life.
Most at risk group
Of around the 1.8 million people annually exposed to asbestos the most at risk group in regular and direct contact with asbestos are those working in the construction, demolition, building and related trade occupations. HSE estimate that plumbers, electricians and heating system installers are likely to be exposed to asbestos up to 140 times each year, or nearly three times a week. Of the 90,000 cases of mesothelioma expected in Britain between 1970 and 2050, around 15,000 will be employed in the building industry.
Unfortunately, the list of occupationally-linked mesothelioma fatalities doesn’t stop there. Between 2002 and 2010, coroner’s reports have recorded the deaths of 400 metal working production & maintenance fitters and between up to 180 deaths of heavy goods vehicle drivers and labourers in process & plant operations. Exposure to asbestos by white collar occupations is also extensive, including just over 100 construction managers, and production, works & maintenance managers.
Entire school population has been exposed
There are an estimated 29,000 schools around Britain suspected of asbestos hidden in the walls, ceilings, window frames, boiler and heating systems. As recently as 2012, a House of Commons statement noted that “Over 140 school teachers have died from mesothelioma in the past ten years.” One year later, the Medical Research Council suggested that “it is not unreasonable to assume that the entire school population has been exposed to asbestos in school buildings”.
The HSE claim that numbers of school teachers who have died from asbestos exposure has increased. Since 1980, a total of 291 school teachers have fallen victim to mesothelioma and over 60 per cent of the deaths (177) have occurred since 2001.
White collar exposure to asbestos
While the number of primary & nursery education teaching professionals was high at around one or more every single week, there was a similar number for nurses followed by other female occupations, including cleaners, domestics, sales & retail assistants, personal assistants, secretaries, care assistants & home carers. There were more than 20 mesothelioma deaths over an eight year period reported for female processors, sewing machinists, chefs, cooks, and receptionists.
Other “white collar” sectors that coroner’s reports have recorded between 1–2 industrial deaths from mesothelioma every week are marketing & sales managers, shopkeepers & wholesale/retail dealers, civil service administrative officers & assistants, accounts & wages clerks and book-keepers.
A minimum of 20 asbestos-related deaths have also claimed the lives of printers, fork-lift truck drivers, farmers, bus & coach drivers – and police officers. Emergency service crews, such as fire and ambulance can also be at potential risk when called to premises where the structure of the building has been damaged by fire, flood, explosion or other extreme disturbance, exposing asbestos materials and releasing airborne fibres.
At a recent House of Commons session, it was claimed that based on current projections, the expected number of deaths from mesothelioma over the next 25 years could be between 49,000 to 58,000 with 125,000 deaths from all diseases caused by exposure to asbestos fibres.