“There is a tide in the affairs of men…” a line from the play, Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, which might apply to news that environmental volunteers are voicing alarm about the amounts of asbestos found washed up by the River Thames. It was also recently reported that asbestos from a derelict pier in Colwyn Bay, N.Wales could contaminate the beach.

Raising asbestos awareness to broken up pieces collecting around Britain’s shoreline has steadily grown in recent years. Just last summer, the appearance of asbestos waste on a beach at Prestwick in Ayrshire led to the local council promptly closing off the area. Asbestos material has twice been found on the beach at Leas in Minster on the Isle of Sheppey, and on nearby Shellness beach. A total of 15 kilos of asbestos was retrieved from the area, according to the local council. Asbestos was also reported washed up alongside building materials, demolition rubble and broken glass on the dunes at Sandhaven Beach in South Tyneside.

It is strongly suspected that asbestos flytipping is the cause of problem. The illegal dumping of asbestos has increased by around 14 per cent in the last 3 years to more than 3,220 incidents in just 2017 alone, according to a recent Freedom of Information request. Issues have previously been raised over poor practices at ‘waste stations’ where Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that as many as a half of all depots neglected some procedures while others failed to follow any regulations at all.

Waste spilling onto the beach and being washed away by the sea

In February it was reported that an urban council in Ireland had been dumping municipal waste at a site near a harbour, which was spilling toxic asbestos on to a beach in nearby Co Wicklow. In 2012, reports of the waste falling into the sea led to a survey, which estimated that the amount of waste could be as much as 48,000 cubic metres. More than a decade later, a new report revealed that the dump now contained more than 104,000 cubic metres of waste, including broken asbestos shards. Erosion had also exposed a 200m stretch of the former landfill, resulting in waste spilling onto the beach and being washed away by the sea.

Clearly, the legacy of industry responsible for the widespread use of asbestos insulation – from the 1950s through to the late 1970s and early 80s – continues to wash up on the tide, potentially affecting the affairs of men, women and children today. Many of the broken up pieces appear to be corrugated asbestos cement roofing. Between 1950 and 1969, production of cement roofing used the highly toxic blue “crocidolite” asbestos fibres, and the equally dangerous brown “amosite” fibres from 1945 to at least 1976.

After the ban on blue and brown asbestos in mid 1988, production continued with white “chrysotile” fibres until the mineral type was also banned in 1999. Up until this time, between 10 and 15 per cent of white chrysotile asbestos fibres continued to be used in the reinforcement of building insulation products made of cement.

Water breaking down the integrity of the bonded fibres

Asbestos sheeting was used in the construction of the main pavilion at the Grade II-listed Colwyn Bay pier, N. Wales, according to a 2012 building survey. The pier was closed in 2008, but began to collapse in February this year, prompting the local council to say that the sheeting could break up if the pier was hit by bad weather. Information received under the Freedom of Information Act reveals that, “the external walls of the pavilion were in a very poor condition” and if they were to fail, increased wind pressure within the pavilion could lead to “a high risk of the asbestos cement sheets being lost from the structure.”

Asbestos fibres bound in cement are considered to be less of a health risk – but only if the material is found in good condition and not liable to release airborne particles. Broken asbestos pieces washed up on the beach could pose a danger, not least from the water breaking down the integrity of the bonded fibres while the jagged edges are liable to be loose and fragmented.

The council at Colwyn Bay are considering how to clean the beach if the pavilion was to collapse. Meanwhile environmental clean-up groups are calling upon the Port of London Authority to address the issue of asbestos found on shoreline areas adjacent to the River Thames. In recent years, local authorities at coastal resorts around the country face increasing reports of asbestos on their beaches… as the tide once again leaves a visible reminder of the suffering still caused to thousands of victims today of exposure to the deadly fibre dust.