Asbestos Must Be Eradicated From Public Buildings

A proposed asbestos bill could make it compulsory for the deadly building material to be removed from public premises, delegates at a conference heard last month.

John McClean, national health and safety officer at trade union GMB, told delegates at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health’s annual conference, that the Trades Union Congress (TUC) had put together an asbestos bill before the general election.

McClean said: “The next stage will be to wait for when the ballot for the Private Members Bill comes… The Private Members’ Bill is usually taken by a backbench MP… and sometimes you can persuade an MP to take your bill up… Like asbestos removal this [process] won’t happen in a few weeks, this will be an ongoing [campaign].”

But if the bill does make it into law it would mean a long-term plan for the removal of asbestos from public buildings. McClean says it would mean “better control of asbestos, better registry of it and eventually removal of it”. It could essentially affect those who might not be surveying and registering asbestos in the buildings that they manage, according to McClean. If those who manage buildings are not controlling and registering asbestos within their building, the bill may mean “they could be brought to book”, according to McClean.

Lawyer Harminder Bains, speaking at the same event, also said there had to be more awareness of asbestos in buildings by those who managed and worked in them. She said one of her clients, Janice Allen, who worked at retailer Marks & Spencer’s Marble Arch store, contracted a type of lung cancer called mesothelioma as a result of asbestos exposure. Bains says there has been a rise in cases involving those “inadvertently exposed” to the building material.

Slow and silent killer

There is no way of medically screening for mesothelioma so anyone affected may not realise they have it until decades later like Mrs Allen. The 53-year-old saleswoman was exposed to asbestos on the shop floor while working in two Marks & Spencer stores between 1978 and 1987, first in its flagship store on London’s Oxford Street, then at Uxbridge. The retailer had to pay Allen £1 million in damages. Bains, whose father died from mesothelioma and has been dealing with asbestos claims for 20 years, told FM World: “When I first started this with my clients they were factory and shipyard workers, but those industries are much smaller. Now my clients are working in buildings made of asbestos. They started working there from late teens/early twenties and this disease takes anything from 10 to 20 years to grow… Also pupils and teachers in schools have been exposed, so the age group contracting these diseases has become much younger.”

She added: “An employer has a duty to manage asbestos in a building. You need to get a survey from a qualified professional to remove it or manage it in order to keep it safe.” She stressed the need of having records of how it has been kept safe as invaluable for companies that did not want the same trouble as Marks & Spencer.

McClean says that while some companies are required to survey large amounts of asbestos being released, small releases do not seem to be noted. He added there was a danger that “children in schools might disturb asbestos unknowingly”, which is why a comprehensive survey and then removal of asbestos surveys from current buildings is so important. Asbestos was considered a miracle fireproof building material and widely used in construction after the Second World War until the 1970s, when it was recognised to be lethal. Legislation over the past few decades has since required the removal of asbestos.

Although in Europe there is awareness of the dangers of asbestos, some countries still depend on it. Russia is one of the biggest producers of the building material and the country sends much of what it makes to India.