Cases involving the presence of asbestos in a library may not be as frequent as other public buildings, such as schools, hospitals and council premises. Nevertheless, asbestos awareness and the potential health risks of exposure will be highlighted whenever asbestos dust or asbestos-containing materials come to light during renovations in any public, commercial or residential building.

Around 140,000 tons of asbestos was annually imported into the UK during the 1950s, which rose to more than 170,000 tons every year during the 1960s and peaking at around 183,000 tons in the 1970s. The professional construction industry regularly warn that asbestos should always be suspected in every premises built up until 2000, and a full and thorough asbestos survey should always be carried out before any building work begins.

Presence of asbestos in a library no different from other public building

There are 4,145 libraries in the UK, according to a 2014 survey by CIPFA, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy. The presence of asbestos materials within the fabric of a library building constructed or refurbished up until the final asbestos ban in 1999 would likely to be no different from any other public building. One recent example involving a public library is a proposed £1 million renovation, which includes the removal of asbestos at a Hereford library.

A £4 million project being carried out at a new local studies library in Derby also requires quantities of asbestos to be removed and will be six months late in reopening. One spokesman for the planners said that the library was a former Magistrates Court built in the 1930s and “As with many historic buildings, asbestos was found in some areas during the renovation. Therefore, work had to be undertaken by the contractors for its safe removal”.

Significant decontamination needed

Quantities of asbestos have also been found on-site at the national flagship, the British Library. Significant decontamination was needed at the Document Supply Centre buildings in Boston Spa in Yorkshire and later at storage premises at Colindale, north London, where white chrysotile cement dust was discovered.

The source of the contamination at the Boston Spa was traced to asbestos roofing sheets found in a severely damaged and fragile condition. Over the years, asbestos fibre dust had become airborne and dispersed into the stored book collections. Decontamination involved removal of the interior building fabric, such as the carpets, floor tiles, ceiling tiles, suspended ceiling material, pipe insulation and dismantling of the book racks.

Asbestos in schools and hospitals are more widely known about

It has now been three decades since the most dangerous brown and blue forms of asbestos were banned in the UK and 15 years since imports of white asbestos were finally halted. Yet issues involving the discovery of asbestos and the potential risks of asbestosis disease or the fatal, mesothelioma cancer tend to only be reported when a residents’ protest campaign is organised or when cases involving negligence in asbestos removal reach court.

The potential presence and control of asbestos in schools and hospitals are more widely known about and continue to be urgent issues raised at every available opportunity by concerned mesothelioma support groups and organisations.

The possibility that over the years a public library may have been a source of potential asbestos exposure involving countless numbers of library staff and the general book borrowing public can never be entirely ruled out, no matter how unlikely.

Lifetime risk of environmental exposure

Victims of mesothelioma who appear to have no work history of direct occupational exposure cannot always precisely account for where and when they came into contact with asbestos. Most weeks, claim cases are begun where a victim or their spouse calls for former work colleagues from decades earlier to help with identifying the likely source of a workplace exposure, most often in the form of pipework lagging, ceiling tiles and wallboard.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) suggest that there was a ‘lifetime’ risk of 1 per 1,000 of men women developing an asbestos-related disease in the last 75 years as the result of an ‘environmental’ exposure.

Environmental asbestos exposure is considered to be an “unsuspected occasional or ambient exposure in occupational settings” initially classified as “low risk.” In the latter case, low risk tends to refer to buildings, such as schools, hospitals and libraries or other public (or private) premises constructed with asbestos-containing materials, which may also be “encapsulated” and managed under strict regulations.