The recent horrific events involving non fireproof cladding at Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey residential tower block in North Kensington, London, led to the discovery of further flammable cladding and/or thermal building insulation around the country. To date, 120 high-rise buildings in 37 local authority areas across England have failed fire safety tests. Of around 600 people thought to have been resident in the tower, police say that 80 people are dead or missing.

Investigations into the application of safety procedures, building regulations, manufacturers, suppliers and contractors are ongoing, and an official government disaster enquiry has also been announced. The questions raised over the potential safety risk of the types of cladding installed, and then the underlying insulation will seem all too painfully familiar to those who have been affected by a different type of insulation used down through the years – asbestos.

Even as revelations surrounding the applications of new types of synthetic building insulation may come to light as a result of the Grenfell Tower disaster, the legacy of Britain’s earlier asbestos use continues to haunt council estates, public buildings, and other properties.

How grimly ironic that it should be recently reported that quantities of asbestos were needed to be removed from three separate tower blocks in a South coast housing estate, which was discovered in a number of different areas, including external cladding and balcony panels.

Companies neglecting to carry out adequate safety checks

During the peak of widespread industrial use as a low cost source of insulation and fireproofing by the construction and building industry in the 1960s and 70s, up to around 170,000 tons of asbestos was imported every year. However, one obvious difference in working practices between today and half a century ago was in health and safety, which could often be inadequate or even appear non-existent.

One recurring story told by mesothelioma victims was the lack of asbestos awareness at the time to the potential risks or companies neglecting to carry out adequate safety checks in the workplace. Thousands of men employed right across British industry from the late 1940s through to the mid 1980s were never supplied with safety masks, protective equipment or even provided with information about the potential health dangers of breathing in asbestos fibre dust.

Thankfully, we have seen legislation, such as The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Control of Asbestos Regulations, introduced in 1987, aimed at providing better protection. Use of the most toxic brown and blue asbestos fibre types was banned in 1985 and among a number of additional products which were banned by The Asbestos Prohibition Regulations 1992 was the supply and use in buildings and construction of white chrysotile asbestos in “low density insulation and sound proofing, floor and wall underlays”. White asbestos was also finally banned seven years later.

However, the damage of almost a century of building with asbestos and its consequences are not so easily undone. Large-scale building of council housing across the UK had begun in the 1920s and by the 1960s, half of all housing built was council owned. By the mid 1980s, one housing survey revealed that there could be between two and four million homes constructed of lightweight building materials containing hidden asbestos.

Current measures for managing asbestos is unsatisfactory

Today, the professional construction industry repeatedly warn that that any premises built or refurbished up until 2000 – the year after white asbestos was finally banned – should always be suspected of containing up to 30 per cent of asbestos containing materials. 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.

However, cases of wilful neglect of the regulations by building firms when dealing with asbestos continue to be regularly brought to court. Either an asbestos survey has not been properly carried out or the firm has been seen to flout the correct procedures for the safe removal of asbestos materials.

In October 2015, The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health released a report, which stated its belief that the current measures for managing asbestos is unsatisfactory and would never protect individuals from a potential health risk. The report emphasised the need to introduce comprehensive measures for a planned removal of all asbestos still remaining in every property in Britain by 2035. There is an earlier deadline for complete asbestos removal from public buildings and educational establishments, such as schools, by 2028.

It seems highly unlikely that the deadline will be achieved in the next ten years. Recent estimates suggest that as many as 8 in 10 schools in England and Wales contain asbestos, and around half a million properties could still contain up to 4 million tons of asbestos.

It is hoped that the impending enquiry into the process surrounding the installation of cladding and insulation will provide a prompt and decisive outcome. Perhaps it may prompt renewed government action into resolving the longer-standing issue of asbestos insulation still present in so many of Britain’s buildings.