Reports of local councils admitting to asbestos occupying a number of their buildings seem to have been on the rise in 2015. From Waltham Forest in the south east – where the council failed to act, despite knowing about asbestos in the basement of their town hall for more than ten years – to Hartlepool in the north east, where a 19 year old apprentice was exposed to asbestos lagged pipes while working at a local authority run school.

In many cases, there are also councils who will deny the existence of asbestos in their buildings even though an employee loses their life to mesothelioma – as was the case of a 61 year old female who worked for three years in a  Surrey council parks department building.

Nationwide problem

The widespread presence of asbestos in public buildings should be of real concern. Asbestos awareness to the real dangers of exposure are no longer so easily dismissed as apparently ‘low risk’, as they were before white asbestos was finally banned in the UK, just 15 years ago. White asbestos has been formally recognised by the government as a Class 1 cancer-causing agent in the UK since at least 2010. The nationwide problem of asbestos in three quarters of Britain’s schools, many of which are local authority buildings, has become more widely known as a result of cases being reported almost every week.

Most recently, Worcester council had admitted that nearly a half of their 1,500 properties contain asbestos materials. The buildings include not only schools but also 169 academies, public libraries, offices, smallholdings and even caravan sites.

“Unsafe” condition

The concern must be over the potential health risks of asbestosis disease, which could have affected the countless numbers of council and public sector employees who spent part of their working lives working everyday in local council premises. According to one council spokesman “Asbestos is not a problem of the past, it’s a problem of the present”.

The council have not only owned up to the existence of asbestos to be found in their properties but also admit that removal of the deadly fibres is “not an option” as the materials are considered to be in an “unsafe” condition. A second councillor says that “all sorts of institutions” across the country are “not dealing with the legacy of asbestos”. The county council says it has “refreshed” its asbestos policy and has examined “every building built before 2000.”

Every type of public building

The cut-off date of 2000 is no coincidence. The ban on the most toxic types of asbestos fibres in the production of insulation products used across British industry – from shipbuilding to house-building – was introduced in 1985.  However, white asbestos continued to be used for at least another ten years or more until finally banned in 1999.

From the 1950s until the late 1970s and early 80s around 170,000 tonnes of asbestos was imported each year into the UK. Even during the 1990s, around 10,000 tonnes of white asbestos was still being annually imported. It’s not surprising that asbestos – used as a readily available, low-cost source of anti-corrosive and fire proof insulation – would find its way into almost every type of public, private and commercial building.

Condition of asbestos is crucial

It is generally agreed by the construction industry that any premises built or refurbished up until 2000 should always be suspected of containing up to 30 per cent of asbestos containing materials (ACMs). This also includes local authority housing and council estates where asbestos could be present by up to 10 per cent in cement panel ceilings and in outbuildings. At least 5 per cent could also be present in fire protection materials, including the underside of garage roofs and boiler cupboard enclosures.

The condition of the asbestos when discovered in council premises is crucial to an official approved decision over whether the materials are to be removed or controlled, depending on the quantities discovered. Despite the usual council assurances of “no risk” to those on the premises if asbestos is kept in place under managed conditions, the weight of opinion at national and international level is calling for the total removal of the deadly fibres, under all circumstances.

Long standing issue

The European Economic and Social Committee put forward a proposal in 2014, which recommends the “total removal of all used asbestos and all asbestos containing products” across the EU. In the UK, a Parliamentary Group has recently called for a “timetable” which will see the removal of asbestos from every single workplace in Britain by 2035.

Action over asbestos in public buildings has been a long standing issue for many concerned organisations and health groups. In 2014, the Health and Safety Executive reported that an estimated 5,000 people will die from asbestos exposure each year and a further 45,000 mesothelioma deaths can be expected by 2050.