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How Grenfell can prepare us for the next public safety scandal

Updated: Mar 4, 2020

A ‘stay put’ policy makes asbestos more deadly than ever

The 2019 general election caps off a decade of discontent in the UK, and in the final few days it’s easy to believe Brexit has completely absorbed the national mood. But when the country heads to the polls on 12th December, not all voters will have left behind the anger they felt less than a week after the last election.

The tragedy of Grenfell Tower forced us to grapple with the question: In whose interest should Government regulate public safety? Very soon the voting public will get to decide which government it trusts to know the answer. A country divided over its future can still unite on issues of the moment, and on this we really must, or else the next regulatory scandal will have killed thousands by the time we notice it.

Asbestos was banned in the UK 20 years ago, on 24 November 1999. The material that had been used to fireproof and insulate British homes and public buildings for more than a century had proven deadly. Once marketed as ‘The Magic Mineral’, its uses were eventually eclipsed by a lung disease linked to its fibres known as mesothelioma. The UK has historically shipped in more asbestos per capita than any other developed country. We now host more than six million tonnes of this category-1 carcinogen, enough to fill 14 Wembley Stadiums. We also have the highest rate of asbestos-related deaths anywhere on the planet.

So where did we put it all? The next time you drop your kids off at school, or a loved one at A&E, the answer will be right there in front of you. In short, we left it to decay in more than 1.5 million private and public buildings, including 80 percent of our schools and 94 percent of our NHS Trusts.

Before your heart skips a beat, consider the bigger picture. Last year, occupational deaths caused by asbestos in the UK surpassed 5000. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) predicts these will drop off after 2020 as deaths linked to traditional occupations fade with a generation. Most recorded fatalities are men who worked with asbestos in the 1960s and 70s, or women who inhaled it from their husbands’ overalls, unaware of its harms. Now for the even bigger picture.

Since 2000, mesothelioma deaths among teachers and nurses have been rising and are not set to stop. At least 319 teachers have died from mesothelioma since 1980, of which 205 have occurred since 2001. A British schoolteacher is now five times likelier than average to develop the disease – a nurse three times more likely. We know this thanks to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request made in 2016 by the National Education Union (NEU). Behind it was Lucie Stephens, whose mother Sue Stephens passed away from mesothelioma at the age of 68 after 30 years as a primary school teacher. Like most sufferers, her symptoms only began to show decades after exposure, and were incurable by the time she was diagnosed. And like most, it only took very low levels of exposure to asbestos for her mesothelioma to develop.

Mesothelioma is a pernicious malady. It develops slowly and kills quickly. Asbestos fibres first enter the lung, serrating the tissue through accumulative minute cuts before eroding the air sacks until they collapse with fluid. One US study suggests that for every teacher who dies of mesothelioma, nine pupils can be expected to die of the disease. Every decade under the age of 30 a person is exposed effectively increases the risk twofold.

Under the current health and safety regime however, the UK accepts that a child might breathe in up to 100,000 asbestos fibres per day. In Germany, the limit is a tenth of this: around 10,000 fibres. This isn’t because British asbestos is 10 times lower-grade, but because the German method for spotting it is 10-times higher-tech. The HSE advocates what, in legal wonk, it calls the most “reasonably practicable” methods of detection. This amounts to using ‘phased contrast microscopy’, technology as old as the ejector seat in Goldfinger.

Compared to electron microscopy used in Germany, it picks up only a faint trace of airborne asbestos, and is pretty hopeless at catching any of it in its most toxic forms. The upshot is that the UK goes into high-risk schools with a science kit from the 60s that won’t let it see the problem. The French and Dutch are even further ahead of Germany in the monitoring department. If such comparisons don’t influence us now, how likely are they to influence us post-Brexit?

There is a growing number of cases of former pupils and students now dying of mesothelioma. Among them, the name Dianne Willmore endures. She lasted just long enough for her former Knowsley comprehensive to grant her compensation before passing away aged 47 in 2011. Yet some sufferers are as young as 30 and are right now battling through the courts to have their schools and universities recognise the risks their buildings pose. They are the minority, but their affliction can only be linked to one cause, in one place in time. In 2014, the BBC reported that more than 3,000 students of universities across Wales sleep every night in dorms made of materials containing asbestos.

The HSE maintains that asbestos is safe unless it is disturbed. In its monitoring guidance, it stipulates that a ‘duty holder’ bears responsibility for checking and recording the type and condition of asbestos in public buildings. Who the duty holder is depends on what type of school or hospital assigns them the role. Surveys and FoIs by the NEU meanwhile find that teachers are often poorly informed by their duty holder.

One recent FoI request found that half of local education authorities couldn’t name schools within their control that contained asbestos. Even if they could have done, the HSE does not keep a centralised database of complaints about asbestos in public buildings. In 2018, it sent out a voluntary self-assessment survey on asbestos management to 20,000 schools. Unsurprisingly, around 90 percent of the schools duly marked themselves, and around 90 percent scored highly.

The ban on asbestos was always prime fodder for our tick-box culture in post-millennial Britain. Since then, we’ve dealt with the problem in broad brushstrokes, figuratively and literally painting over rather than solving it. It only takes a teacher to push a drawing pin into a wall, or a child to fall in a gymnasium for that paint to crack and for the poison to be released. The same walls that forbid your child from smoking, running or clogging the corridor could potentially stop them from meeting their grandchildren.

Removing asbestos from public buildings is hugely expensive and potentially harmful, yet it is the only answer we have to this toxic perpetuity. European Parliament has committed to full phased removal of asbestos from public buildings by 2028. In the UK, the furthest we’ve come is the Labour Party’s 2017 manifesto, which pledged to remove all asbestos from schools. The party’s 2019 manifesto does not include this pledge.

After the fire, Grenfell was a hazard zone. The tower had been known to contain asbestos, which the blaze only helped disperse. Dr Fiona Wilcox, the coroner who analysed the wreckage, noted that escapees and emergency service workers had almost certainly been exposed to asbestos dust, and are now at increased risk of asbestosis. Had the tower’s cladding been sprayed with asbestos, there is a high chance that more than 223 people would have survived. Had that been the case, the tower might also have been salvaged, and would continue to have had its asbestos managed so as only to kill a couple of residents every 20 years or so.

The HSE would have us believe the worst is over, that asbestos is a problem belonging to yesterday’s ship builder, not the people who teach our children to read or lay the pillows beneath our elderly’s heads. If we accept this – if we accept that the only thing is to ensure asbestos stays put, and that we and our children stay put with it – then we accept both the mindset and the mechanism by which systems fail and leave people to die, as ours did the 72 who perished at Grenfell in 2017.

The difference is that asbestos is an invisible killer. It will never eat up airtime or commandeer column inches. It will never stop us in the street, draw a gasp from our lips or put the fear of God in us. It is as likely to get its close-up on TV as it is under the HSE’s monitoring regime. Asbestos is a stealthy assassin, not a rampaging thug. It is a silent epidemic we let go on because we are told it belongs to the distant past or to a distant future, just not the present.

‘Stay put’ was the last instruction given to the victims of Grenfell before they died. If we don’t defy that instruction now, asbestos will go on killing us forever.


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