BHS has left its ‘home’ on the British high street after 90 years. The last 22 stores closed on the August bank holiday weekend. Many people will have their own memories of shopping for everyday clothing and household items in one of the 94 British Home Stores, as they were once called. Founded in 1928, the high street retailer had 164 outlets nationwide by the 1960s and its last change of ownership in 2015.

But over the years, millions of customers around the country were unaware that deadly asbestos insulation lay hidden in many of the older stores where they regularly shopped, including the store purpose-built for BHS in the 1960s at 64 Princes Street, Edinburgh. Despite of growing medical evidence linking asbestos to mesothelioma and other asbestosis diseases, there was simply a lack of health and safety information made available in the public domain as well as in the industrial and manufacturing workshops where asbestos was a regularly used.

In an initial review of some 50 BHS stores in 2015, it emerged that many had fallen into disrepair. One news source claimed that some of the stores had water pouring through the roof and floors closed for two or three years because they were found to be “riddled” with asbestos.

Undetected in premises built or refurbished up until the 1980s or even later

Throughout most of the 20th C, asbestos insulation was installed into just about every type of public, private or commercial building. During the 1950s, more than 1.3 million metric tonnes of asbestos was imported into the UK, which rose to 1.6 million in the 1960s and around 1.5 million in the 1970s. Use of the most toxic brown and blue asbestos fibres was only banned from the mid 1980s onwards while imports of white asbestos were only officially halted in 1999.

Asbestos containing materials can often lay undetected in premises built or refurbished up until the 1980s or even later, including many high street stores and retail centre units. It is often only when a store or shopping complex undergoes renovation that asbestos-containing materials are uncovered, often in wallboard partitioning, heating ducts, air conditioning units and ceiling voids.

BHS was not the only long-serving, major high street brand, which has been found to contain the hazardous fibres.

Concerns also raised at M&S stores

Over the last 20 years, Marks & Spencer has, at various times, discovered asbestos at different branches. As recently as 2013, customers and staff at the Marble Arch store were warned that they may have been put at risk from asbestos contamination over the previous ten years at least. When renovations were carried out in 1998, it was reported how cladding that had been stripped with a sledgehammer revealed asbestos was “everywhere”.

In 2006, concerns were also raised at M&S stores in Plymouth, Bournemouth and at the Reading branch where during refurbishments, a witness described seeing dust from the ceiling falling on a shop assistant stacking sandwiches, which later “would be covered in asbestos dust”. Other witnesses alleged that areas cleaned by the company were “re-contaminated” by air moving through the void between the ceiling tiles and the floor above. At the Bournemouth store, it was found that rather than observe the regulations, the company had produced its own guidance, and thus, failed to “plan, manage and monitor” the controlled removal of asbestos materials.

Woolworths, one of the nation’s much-loved high street chain, which closed all its stores in January 2009 after 100 years of trading was also in the news following the discovery of asbestos at two Devon stores five years earlier. During the prosecution hearing, the court heard that asbestos fibres covered stock and shelves when a contractor came to remove asbestos ceiling tiles. Store staff were reported using dustpans and brushes to clear up the dust.

Store sold items that contained asbestos, including worktops and ironing boards

In 2010, it was reported that the husband of a former Woolworths employee who died of mesothelioma, aged 78, was awarded mesothelioma compensation. His wife was employed at the Durham branch of Woolworths between 1947 and 1982. Exposure was thought to have occurred when she began working at the store, which at the time sold items that contained asbestos, including worktops and ironing boards. A witness at the hearing confirmed the story, recalling that when she unpacked ironing boards for display, dust, now thought to be asbestos, used to stick to her hair. Previously, the deceased victim also believed that further exposure took place when the premises was refurbished in the 1960s.

Over the last ten years, other major high street chains found to contain asbestos, include Top Shop in Liverpool and John Lewis in Edinburgh in 2008, the Co-op, Manchester in 2007, Blacks in London, 2005 and the Birmingham branch of House of Fraser in 1997.

Tragically, there is simply no way of knowing how many staff or customers may have been regularly exposed to the deadly dust in any of the British high street stores over the decades or will eventually be diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease some 15 to 50 years later.