The Times recently carried a special report on asbestos (paywall). Steve Boggan’s excellent article was a rare example of a detailed, thoughtful, well-researched and intelligent piece of writing on the subject in the mainstream press. Without the unscientific scaremongering that is so often peddled out, this piece told the unvarnished reality – which frankly should be scary enough.
Boggan interviewed several sufferers and family members. These included Wayne: an HGV mechanic, Grace: a retired teacher, and Garry: who recently lost his wife Debbie to the disease. While their stories are all different in the detail of their unfairness and tragedy, they all share a central core – the fact that they didn’t know that they were being exposed.
The article discusses the recent Department of Work and Pensions Select Committee report, and focuses on the two main recommendations that would address this ignorance. These were a national register of asbestos, so we know where all of the material is, and a plan to remove it all. Both have been rejected by the government.
Boggan quotes the prominent campaign group ResPublica who state that 90% of hospitals and about 80% of schools contain asbestos. The recent study paper by the National Organisation of Asbestos Consultants (NORAC) and the Asbestos Testing and Consultancy Association (ATaC) has similar figures, with 78% of the buildings they looked at having contained asbestos.
I don’t know how accurate the ResPublica figures are, and I know the NORAC/ATaC piece was only a snapshot, but in part that’s the point: no one has an authoritative overall view of how big a challenge we have.
The Cliff Edge
As a country we are heading towards two impending cliff edges. The first is that many of the schools and other structures that contain asbestos have a light steel frame construction. These have a design lifespan of 40 years, and we’re at least 10 years beyond that now.
The second is Net Zero. If we’re going to achieve this, there’ll be an awful lot of building work required.
Between these two massive construction challenges, many of the buildings we currently use are either going to be demolished or heavily refurbished in the next few years. Without knowing how big the asbestos problem is or having a national removal plan in parallel, it would be human nature to lose sight of the issue.
Many still see asbestos as a problem we fixed long ago. It’s still there, though, just not widely known or understood. The climate emergency, by contrast, comes with a very pressing and public deadline. But if we don’t get the asbestos plan right, it seems inevitable that the rush to Net Zero will lead to an avoidable spike in asbestos exposure – and it could be centered on the schools and hospitals used by the most vulnerable in our society.
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