Updated: Apr 1, 2020
I am writing to you in the midst of unprecedented challenges for the UK economy and public health system to request that urgent action be taken on your budget announcement for the removal of hazardous materials from buildings.
Since July 2019, ResPublica has been campaigning for the reform of the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) approach to managing asbestos in UK schools and hospitals.
Around 80 percent of schools and 94 percent of NHS Trusts contain this deadly material. As a result, teachers and nurses are 3 to 5 times more likely than average to develop the terminal lung disease mesothelioma, and the death trend among these groups is rising. Asbestos related diseases are the UK’s biggest occupational killer, responsible for over 5,000 deaths per year, rising up to 10,000 if we add deaths for those aged over 75 to official HSE figures.
Yet, the HSE’s current management regime does not recognise the increased risk of exposure which many public sector workers face. And the UK lags behind the international standards for sensitive air monitoring, used in other developed nations, to test buildings for ambient exposure.
As current circumstances in this country show, we cannot afford to take these vital public sectors workers for granted, which is why we urge the Government to take the following actions.
Firstly, we ask that a portion of the recently announced £1 billion fund for the removal of unsafe materials from Britain’s public estate be allocated to a full cost-benefit analysis of the phased removal of asbestos from schools. We recognise that this provision is primarily aimed at fire prevention. But while overall fire safety measures have helped to greatly reduce deaths (268 fire-related fatalities in the year ending June 2019, with death rates falling over the last decade) the HSE’s current regulatory provisions continue to endanger not just younger generations of teachers, but pupils whose chances of developing mesothelioma increase through early exposure. Phased removal is therefore key to preserving life and achieving an asbestos-free society.
Secondly, we ask that a comprehensive study be carried out to establish an accurate measurement of ambient asbestos fibres in schools and hospitals, while these buildings are in use. Using the best international standards of air testing would reveal the true extent of airborne asbestos and the health risks it presents. This would provide an evidence base for phased removal of all asbestos, starting with the most harmful materials.
Thirdly, we ask that a portion of the funding be used to seize a rare, brief opportunity offered by the current school closures, to remove asbestos from schools that are most desperately in need of it. This could be done in line with MHCLG advice to continue with the prioritized removal of unsafe cladding during this crisis. School buildings with the highest asbestos content include system buildings (CLASP schools), which number some 3000 nationwide. A fast-acting programme to remove the most toxic forms of asbestos while sites are vacant could achieve removal of its harm at unprecedented scale.
Fourthly, we ask that Government commit to a 10-year plan to recognise and deal with this asbestos problem. Having closed schools to protect life, children and teachers will be invited back into classrooms which may be hazardous. This is an inconsistency which must be recognised and resolved.
The COVID-19 pandemic will place extreme pressure on NHS Trust buildings as the number of hospital admissions rise over the coming months. Such heightened activity within these buildings will inevitably result in unusual levels of disturbance to the asbestos, placing more lives at risk. The funding allocated for the removal of unsafe materials from buildings must be used to recognise and remedy this danger.
As with fire hazards and Covid 19, early action saves lives and in the long run is more affordable to the public purse by a factor of 10. The reason why asbestos deaths are so high, is because it kills slowly, and therefore gains little media or political attention, allowing an ineffective policy of ‘management in-situ’ to be tolerated. Our campaign aims to call this out and address the issue. It is just possible that the public may become more sensitive to such public health killers, in the weeks following the current crisis.
I thank you for your time and urge you to consider our requests carefully over the coming weeks.
Phillip Blond, Director ResPublica
Charles Pickles, Independent Campaigner, Airtight on Asbestos