This month, we mark 40 years of pursuing claims for clients affected by mesothelioma and their families. Something that has rather depressingly remained constant over the years is the UK’s disgraceful legacy in its attitude to the existence of asbestos, which still sits like a time bomb in public buildings across the county.
According to think tank ResPublica, there are still six million tonnes of asbestos in around 1.5m buildings in the UK, alarmingly generally in schools and hospitals.
Last year, Parliament’s work and pensions committee investigated how the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) deals with asbestos and made several recommendations. Top of the list was that the UK should embark on a 40-year programme to remove all asbestos from public buildings, plus that a national database of the location and condition of asbestos should be developed to make site checks easier and safer for workers.
The Government rejected both proposals, suggesting asbestos that is sealed and intact, painted over or inside walls is safer left alone. The idea of the database was rejected because of the cost and effort it would take to produce, and that more public information about the risk would not necessarily lead to improved health and safety performance.
The response from campaigners is that the Government would rather not know how bad the problem is, with the HSE unhelpfully adding that building owners already have a legal duty to record where asbestos is present, and that developing a central register would be expensive, complicated and unlikely to add to the current system.
It is to our shame that European countries are accepting the need to remove asbestos much better than the UK, despite Britain being one of Europe’s biggest importer of asbestos and with more mesothelioma cases per head than any other nation. Part of the reason behind this terrible statistic is the UK’s historical links with South Africa that meant we imported large amounts of brown asbestos from that country, now known as particularly lethal.
The North American Association of Central Cancer Registries cites Great Britain as ‘the epicentre of mesothelioma incidence in Europe’, with the highest age-adjusted mortality rate in the world, at 18.36 per million people.
Meanwhile, we continue to take instruction from people exposed to asbestos in schools and hospitals and can only lobby, and hope, that eventually a government will see sense and react accordingly to these undisputable and terrible data.
Authored by Peter Williams, Fieldfisher