Almost exactly twenty years on from the bombing of the Manchester Arndale Centre, where there were no actual fatalities on the day, it is reported that a life has been now been lost in a delayed fallout from the explosion. A middle-aged man has died from mesothelioma caused by breathing in asbestos dust released into air following the bomb blast.

Any asbestos hidden in a building can often be disturbed during renovations, especially when an asbestos survey has not been properly carried out. Ordinary occupants, from residential homeowners and house tenants to private business staff and public employees, may sometimes be at potential risk to breathing in airborne asbestos fibre dust.

Today, better understanding and improvements in asbestos awareness and safety regulations aim to prevent health threats to the public. But it will be the emergency services, i.e. police, fire or ambulance crews who are regularly called to premises damaged or partially destroyed by an extreme event, who most frequently face the dangers of exposure to asbestos.

Helping in the clean-up operation after the bombing

When a large public building, such as a hospital, department store or an entire shopping mall is affected, not only will regular staff and ordinary members of the public face a health hazard but also others who are on official duty, from cleaners and maintenance staff to security personnel.

On Saturday 15 June 1996, the IRA detonated a 7.5 tonne lorry containing a 1,500 kg (3,300 lb) bomb in the centre of Manchester. More than 200 people were injured, but there were no fatalities on the day. Several buildings near the explosion were damaged beyond repair and had to be demolished, while many more were closed for months for structural repairs.

A Health and Safety Officer who was employed by the Ministry of Defence at the time, and worked for three weeks helping in the clean-up operation after the bombing, recently lost his life to mesothelioma, aged just 40. Before passing away, the victim told his family that he was working right in front of the damaged buildings which were being demolished, and there was “dust and rubble everywhere”.

Asbestos insulation installed at the Arndale Centre

Inhaled dust fibre particles are known to remain permanently embedded in the linings of the lungs (pleura), which may eventually cause tissue cells to turn cancerous. However, it may take between 15 to 50 year before the first asbestosis symptoms emerge and a positive diagnosis can be made. In many cases, mesothelioma cancer will be discovered at an advanced stage and patient survival can be less than six months.

In light of the circumstances which caused the early tragic death of the Health and Safety officer at the site of the Manchester bombing, it is now thought that there could be further victims of asbestos exposure caused by the airborne fibre dust, including police officers, ambulance crews, and shop and office workers.

Coincidentally, it was also recently discovered that asbestos insulation boards were installed when the Arndale Centre was built in Manchester city centre between 1971–79. As a low-cost volume source of insulation and fireproofing material, asbestos was widely used throughout much of British heavy engineering and building construction during the peak years of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Consequently, it is also believed that many other buildings in the city centre, which were affected by the bomb blast were likely to also have contained asbestos materials.

The professional construction industry has repeatedly cautioned that any premises built or renovated at any time up until 2000 are likely to still retain asbestos-containing materials, such as insulating wall board (AIB), soffits, spray textured coating, masonry fill and roof sheeting. Even ceiling and floor tiles, which have been painted over many times or boarded over may have been originally made from asbestos.

Emergency services highly concerned over potential fatal risks

The very real daily dangers posed by asbestos to emergency services and related industry workers are increasingly being reported. An anti-terror officer – who was one of the first to arrive on the scene of the Brighton bombing in 1984 – recently died from mesothelioma caused by breathing in asbestos dust while later clearing up the bomb damage. A former Metropolitan Police detective was also exposed to asbestos at the hotel.

The emergency services continue to be highly concerned over the potential fatal risks of exposure to asbestos every time they are called to out to a building which has been structurally damaged by fire, water or explosion. A number of fire and rescue services have asked the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) to clarify their position on the legal requirements for periodic medical examinations for crew members who disturb asbestos.

HSE have previously reported that every year in the UK, an estimated 1.8 million people – mostly building contractors, related trades, demolition workers and fire fighting crews – are still being exposed to asbestos, and 4,000 deaths are caused by asbestos-related disease.