In February we formally launched our Airtight on Asbestos campaign with a Parliamentary Event in Westminster Palace.
Key stakeholders, campaigners, and politicians came together to discuss the findings of our report: Don’t Breathe In: Bridging the Asbestos Safety Gap. Attending were legal professionals, business figures, epidemiologists, trade union representatives, and concerned citizens, many of whom have contributed to the UK’s asbestos ban and the ongoing battle to better manage and remove asbestos from premises in the UK.
The panel was chaired by Denis Campbell (Policy Health Editor of The Guardian) and included Angela Eagle MP (the Minister who introduced the ban in 1999), Martin Docherty-Hughes MP, independent campaigner Charles Pickles, and ResPublica’s Researcher and Campaign Manager Jack Aldane.
Key takeaways from the event:
The UK is falling behind the best international practices for managing asbestos in-situ. As Angela Eagle MP pointed out at the event:
“You can’t just willy-nilly remove asbestos without doing it properly...in a phased way…with resources and other costs and other dangers in proportion. That’s what the HSE is meant to do. We’ve got to make sure we’ve got state of the art ways of doing that.”
Since the nationwide ban of asbestos in 1999, the HSE has yet to acknowledge the contemporary dangers of asbestos to people in non-traditional occupations, including teaching and nursing:
“Teachers are three to five times more likely to die than the general population; and it’s rising. This rise is masked by the overall fall in industrial deaths, and nobody’s talking about it as the public health emergency that is so clearly is” said Phillip Blond, Director of ResPublica
The event reaffirmed the need for phased removal of asbestos from schools, given the overwhelming costs of complete removal, and the varying degrees of risk presented by different types of asbestos in-situ. Independent campaigner Charles Pickles commented: “[Better management] is a question of beefing up the duty to manage—to bring about an evidence-based, risk-based, phased removal. It’s got to be phased because there’s a finite amount of money – we can’t just shut down all the schools. Only the high-risk fibres will become airborne.”
The event brought together a mixed community of people whose differing interests led a disparate discussion about the problems we set out to address and offered some conflicting views about the best way to address them. Upon reflection, this may well be a contributing factor on why Government has been reluctant or indifferent in taking any action towards a problem that has been widely reported on over the years. We believe that a targeted and pragmatic approach could yield much better results.
As such, the purpose of our campaign is to challenge the HSE’s assumptions about the safety of asbestos in-situ.
The HSE asserts that the current safety threshold for air safety in public buildings (0.01 fibre per millilitre of air)“should be taken only as a transient indication of site cleanliness... and is not an acceptable permanent level". This means that we do not know whether the levels of airborne fibre in schools are safe or not.
Our aim, therefore, is to gather and present hard evidence to show whether these buildings are indeed safe or not, using the highest available standards of sensitive air monitoring. We believe this will convince MPs of the need to improve air monitoring in schools and subsequently compel the HSE to update its current monitoring regime.
We’ve concluded that the best chance of achieving the objectives of the campaign lies therefore in garnering support from asbestos industry experts who have intimate knowledge of how the material is managed and how the current regime is failing. To be clear, those objectives are:
1. To improve recognition of the hazard in schools: by acknowledging that children in schools are at a higher risk and ensuring that schools are uprated in the HSE’s risk assessment algorithm.
2. To assure (rather than assume) that all buildings are safe: by identifying higher risk areas and adopting the best technically feasible method for risk assessment (i.e. yearly sensitive air monitoring to ensure our buildings and our people are safe).
We are forming a dedicated APPG to assist us with achieving these aims. You can read about it here.