Asbestos in public buildings – it’s a problem that continues to cause difficulties wherever the potential health risk is found or is supposed to be managed. There are a number of cases, which appear to regularly show that where asbestos is known to be present on a premises, the approach to removal or management appears to be less than satisfactory.

It may sometimes even appear that asbestos awareness and the potential health risks of exposure, which can lead to asbestosis diseases or the fatal mesothelioma cancer, are being deliberately ignored rather than acted upon by those responsible for the running of some of our public buildings. Inaction or mistaken ideas about “low risk” asbestos continue to be linked to schools, colleges, hospitals, council estates, government and local authorities.

In some instances, the withholding of vital information about the possible presence of asbestos in a premises leads to years of neglect until renovations or a survey uncover the deadly secret or evidence of the fibre dust starts to be found.

Most recently, one London council has appeared to have found itself in a long running controversy over the way it has appeared to handle the presence of asbestos, which was found in the basement of its town hall more than a decade earlier.

All three of the major asbestos types

It was in 2002 that the local authority was first made aware that asbestos materials were present but it seems no further action was taken to either remove, make safe or even acknowledge the fibres existed on their premises.

Ten years passed until one council employee entered a Freedom of Information Act request but was refused permission to view the documents. Concerned over the health risks posed by the dust, in 2012 the employee contacted the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) to carry out a survey. The HSE investigation found all three of the major asbestos types – the most toxic blue and brown asbestos, and white asbestos.

The former two types were banned in the UK from the mid-1980s while white asbestos was allowed to continue to be used in building materials until also being banned by late in 1999. During the peak period of asbestos use – from the 1940s through to the late 1970s and early 1980s – around 170,000 tons were being imported each year into the UK.

HSE estimate that at least half a million or more buildings around Britain still contain asbestos materials and the construction industry warn that no property built or renovated up to 2000 may be considered free from asbestos.

Asbestos dust was found in many more locations

The council has claimed that the rooms containing the asbestos were not in use all the time but HSE are not alone in questioning the statement. By halfway through 2012, an internal staff memo declared that the asbestos had been removed by contractors.

However, it appears that only items registering a high “risk” score on detection equipment were considered “potentially contaminated” and removed. Other items showing a lower score with only a “potential to release fibres” may not have been removed. A council spokesperson has said that the actions taken do not necessarily suggest the council failed to comply with regulations adding that they carry out “ongoing planned and reactive” maintenance and improvements.

Unfortunately, when a further survey was carried out in the final weeks of 2013, evidence of asbestos dust was found in many more locations around the town hall. According to the survey, asbestos was now discovered on the second, first and ground floor areas as well as the basement level. Particular hazard areas identified were in “electrical cupboards, on floor tiles, in meeting rooms, a kitchen and a number of corridors.”

The revelations have once again called into question the claim by the council that all the highly dangerous asbestos had been properly removed a year earlier. It now seems many more staff, including the hundreds of people who use the town hall facilities every day may have been exposed to the deadly fibres than was first thought.

All asbestos removed from public buildings by 2028?

Under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (CAR 2012), once the materials have been identified they should be completely removed. If judged to be in a ‘low risk’ condition, asbestos may stay undisturbed and managed appropriately so the material does not reach a ‘high risk’ category.

In 2013 a new European Parliament report called for the removal of asbestos from all public buildings by 2028, which could finally signal the end of so-called “low risk” chrysotile white asbestos being simply “contained and managed” in thousands of properties around the UK.