Workers I speak to are not always aware of the risk of asbestos, thinking it either a thing of the past, or a risk reserved for those in certain industries.
Teachers, nurses and librarians, for example, tend not to know they are often just metres away from a substance that could cause them fatal, incurable illness. More than 5,000 people every year are losing their lives to asbestos-related illness, caused by exposure at work. This is something unions are working every day to highlight – and to change.
There has been a wave of recent research on asbestos in public buildings, uncovering the real extent of its presence in the places we work in and visit every day, and helps us understand why the numbers of people being diagnosed with horrible illnesses like mesothelioma is still on the rise.
The TUC released data on asbestos in NHS Trusts in London and Scotland, finding hundreds of hospitals, surgeries and clinics contained the cancer-causing substance. In fact, 80% of NHS Trusts ran hospitals that contained asbestos.
This followed our prior research, which discovered thousands of local authority buildings contain asbestos, including town halls, libraries and leisure centres.
Solicitor firm Irwin Mitchell also released a raft of data on asbestos by local authority area, finding the majority of public buildings owned by numerous councils were full of asbestos, and estimating a total of 87,000 buildings affected. Among them, schools were some of the worst affected.
So, if asbestos is so dangerous, why are we still living with it? The government’s argument is this: asbestos is safe to leave in place, so long as it is not disturbed. It poses minimal risk, if any at all, unless the fibres are released into the air. Trade unions reject that argument. We know that if asbestos is in a building, it will eventually become disturbed. There can be few cupboards, boilers, panels and pipes that have had no work done on them since the 1970s, when asbestos use was at its peak.
There is therefore considerable doubt that most of the asbestos that is to be found in buildings is going to lie undisturbed for the next 40 years (a timeframe for removal the UK government recently rejected).
The only safe, sustainable way forward is to set out a place for phased removal of asbestos, to protect workers now and in future generations. What’s more, we need to upgrade many buildings anyway, especially if we are serious about improving insulation, ventilation and meeting net zero targets.
Schools are some of the most likely buildings to contain asbestos, but also the most obvious site for safe removal. Many schools desperately need repair or replacing anyway: the Department for Education has admitted a serious risk of collapse in many school buildings. We know more than 90 per cent of schools contain asbestos, and that the rate of mesothelioma diagnoses among former teachers is rising rapidly, so the need for removal is urgent. In the past six months alone, four schools in England had to close after asbestos was disturbed.
As well as providing adequate support, and research, for those affected, the only real way to prevent asbestos-related illness in the long term is to remove the substance once and for all.
Only by removing asbestos from all public buildings can we avoid future risk of exposure and stop the thousands of early – and entirely preventable – deaths from this dreadful, fatal illness.
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