Emma's thoughts... Why are people still dying of asbestos-related disease in the UK?

Emma's thoughts... Why are people still dying of asbestos-related disease in the UK?

The UK banned the import of blue asbestos in 1976, brown asbestos in 1985 and all asbestos in 1999. We’ve known, since before the Second World War, that if you breathe in too much of it then you will contract one of the three serious asbestos diseases (asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma. So, why in 2017, is asbestos the biggest industrial killer that the UK has ever seen with more than 5000 deaths per annum.

I’ve grown up around the asbestos industry. My father started one of the first independent asbestos testing labs in the UK in 1978 and his research has contributed to significant changes in legislation from the 1980’s to current days. I’m not frightened of it, I marvel at its incredible properties, so valued by the building and industrial trades. But I do treat it with respect. I wear my mask and take proper precautions when handling it and have always done so.

I qualified as an asbestos testing analyst in 1992. The site analysts are the ones who go in dressed as a space man/woman and run air tests before enclosures can come down and general public or workers can go back into the area. As a skinny youngster it was my job to do all the ‘small’ jobs that the ‘lads’ couldn’t get into. Crawling on your belly through hospital ducts, checking ventilation shafts in prisons, checking out the nooks and crannies before the wrecking ball of demolition can be used, checking miles of insulated pipe on petrochemical sites, spending time to reassure the granny worried about her grandchildren because her kitchen is being replaced and there’s asbestos in there. You name it and I’ve probably been there! I’ve befriended people in the removal industry, laughed with them during tough shifts and then cried at the funerals of those with more cavalier attitudes to wearing masks. I’m now seeing the sons of these men coming to our training courses.

In the UK we have some of the toughest Health and Safety Laws on planet Earth. Yet STILL the number of people contracting cancers from asbestos exposure is increasing. Why? Who are these people?

You can look at asbestos, it doesn’t turn you blind. You can touch asbestos, it doesn’t burn your skin. But if you breathe it in then that’s where the trouble starts. As it is a prescribed disease, this means that the Coroner is alerted every time someone dies of an asbestos related illness. Every year, there is a note of the persons postcode, job classification and type of disease they died from. This means that scientists can analyse the data and see where the system is breaking down and then look into how we can fix it.

From this data and research, we know that the majority of people currently dying are NOT asbestos workers. Nor are they the scientists, analysts (like my younger, skinnier, self) or surveyors within the industry. The vast majority of these 'new' cases are tradesmen: Electricians, Plumbers, Joiners, Plasterers. Lots of them work for themselves and a lot of them have the same cavalier attitude that the now dead asbestos workers used to have. Some of them simply don’t know that they are in contact with asbestos products every single day “Nah, not me, I just drill the holes for the cables to come through.” But they are unaware it is Asbestos Insulating Board they are drilling through.

It is my intention that, through our ACS Risk Group, I can work to prevent future exposures. We cannot cure those already exposed but every single person reading this can do something small to help the cause. If you are having work done in your house, for example, make sure you’re not asking someone to work on asbestos containing materials: get things checked out first. Having samples analysed is not expensive and there are plenty of labs throughout the UK (although clearly I’d like you to use mine!). Ask tradesmen if they have asbestos awareness qualifications or been on asbestos courses. For most, a general awareness will be sufficient. If they say ‘no’ then point them to the HSE website www.hse.gov.uk/asbestos and suggest you'd like to employ someone with a bit more knowledge on the topic. If you have friends or family that work in the trades mentioned above then speak to them, ask them what they do on a daily basis to protect themselves. Asbestos is a world-wide problem. No-one has a magic wand to fix it. If every single person takes one tiny step, however, then we can quickly change awareness levels. As soon as awareness is raised, exposures and eventually death rates will start to fall.