More than 19 years since it was banned in the UK, asbestos remains widespread in our private and public buildings. It’s still there because removing it all presents a huge, hazardous and expensive challenge, but also because in most cases, managing it in place has been thought to be an effective safeguard.
However, despite strict rules, lapses and disturbances are common, and both workers and members of the public are still exposed to deadly fibres. There have been calls for asbestos to be removed altogether from the built environment, but such large-scale removal would inevitably involve challenges, not least of which would be the sheer cost of safely extracting and processing millions of tonnes of highly carcinogenic materials.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral which we’ve used extensively: the two together mean that there’s a background atmospheric level. It raises the question: Is an asbestos-free world possible? Would it be worth the effort? Who would foot the bill? We spoke to industry experts.
What’s the law?
The UK banned the use and import of all asbestos under the Asbestos (Prohibitions) (Amendment) Regulations 1999. Under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, parliament created a legal ‘duty to manage’ asbestos in all non-domestic premises. Duty holders must:
- Take reasonable steps to identify asbestos
- Assess the risk it poses
- Make and act on a plan to manage the risk
- Communicate the risk and plan to anyone likely to disturb the asbestos, such as building contractors
There’s no explicit legal requirement to remove asbestos-containing material (ACM) if it can be safely managed and contained.
The current controls – backed up by Health and Safety Executive (HSE) enforcement – have been working to reduce asbestos exposure, but it hasn’t been eliminated.
In the light of ongoing incidents, in 2013 the European Parliament called for the removal of asbestos from all European public buildings by 2028. Two years later, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health said that UK workplaces should be made asbestos-free by 2035.
Why aren’t we removing more asbestos?
Despite this, UK and European law remains unchanged. To explain why, industry experts point to what we’ve already learned in more than 30 years of removing ACMs: it’s a risky, expensive business. Jon Chambers, QSHE compliance manager at Interserve Environmental Services, explains that the cost of removing all asbestos from all UK public buildings would run to many billions of pounds. But there are other fundamental concerns.
“The asbestos industry would not be able to cope at its current size and scope,” says Chambers. “The current UK industry standards are very high, but with increased workloads and short timescales, it’s foreseeable that standards of work would drop, [and this would directly] affect the safety of those involved in the works, and building users.”
These concerns are shared by many in the industry, including Martin Stear, a chartered occupational hygienist and fellow of the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) Faculty of Occupational Hygiene. “Removal would need to be done properly,” he says, “otherwise we would have massive problems, and years later find out that the standards [of work] were shoddy.”
There is, however, another major problem. With up to six million tonnes of asbestos thought to remain in UK buildings, removing it all would clearly overwhelm the current landfill system’s capacity to cope.
“If we remove all the asbestos, where are we going to leave it all?” asks Dr Yvonne Waterman, founder and president of the European Asbestos Forum. “Asbestos fibres do not degrade, so putting it back into the ground and covering it up is not a long-term solution.”
For Dr Waterman, the wholesale removal of asbestos would require “the policy and regulations, the manpower, the designated areas for storing asbestos, and many innovations to remove asbestos more effectively and cheaply.”
“In this context,” she warns, “2028 is practically tomorrow.”
Dr Martin Gibson, principal specialist inspector (Occupational Hygiene) at the HSE, has underlined the problem faced by the UK specifically. Speaking at the October 2017 BOHS asbestos roadshow, he noted that the UK’s industrial revolution was the world’s first. The UK was the first country to start importing asbestos on a large scale, and it imported the most: in the 1960s and 70s the UK imported 40% of the world’s capacity to produce amosite asbestos. The UK has so much asbestos that removing it all would be uniquely difficult, perhaps impossible – that’s why it has had to become so good at managing the problem.
Is removal necessary?
Clearly, the safe removal of asbestos on this scale is a considerable challenge, which begs the question of whether it’s necessary. In the UK, around 5,000 people die each year from asbestos-related illness, but it’s forecast that the incidence of mesothelioma will halve between 2014 and 2035 as the UK’s 1999 ban begins to finally impact the disease.
The HSE position relies heavily on this analysis, which plots the weight of asbestos imported against the incidence of mesothelioma over time. If it’s correct, we’re at or near the peak for mesothelioma deaths, which will begin to fall in the next few years.
However, if we look at previous versions of this chart, we find that the peak has been repeatedly pushed back as death rates continued rising. Worldwide, mesothelioma mortality is showing the same kind of stubbornness, which some argue is due to increased environmental exposure despite increasingly widespread bans.
Despite effective management, continuing environmental, occupational and accidental exposure is likely to have consequences, and removing asbestos from buildings will only have an impact on the latter two. Generally, experts agree that removal is the ideal option, but only where the process is thorough, and safe for those undertaking the work.
In Europe many countries are actively pursuing ambitious programmes of removal from the built environment. In 2009, Poland embarked on a 23-year programme of asbestos abatement which includes widespread removal. In the Netherlands, the government is moving to ban – and require the removal of – all asbestos roofs by 2024. Meanwhile, the regional government of Flanders, Belgium, is implementing an ‘accelerated asbestos elimination policy’ to remove an estimated 2.09 million tonnes of high-risk ACMs by 2040.
Although none of these quite aim for ‘asbestos free’, it could be argued that they’re the necessary precursors to more widespread and complete action. In particular, despite the earlier European Parliament call, the EU is unlikely to act for some time.
“In the near future, more efforts are to be expected from individual countries than the European Union,” thinks Dr Yvonne Waterman. “The EU will, I expect, not regulate further on asbestos until its newest members have had a chance to catch up on the existing asbestos regulations – that’s a big job already.”
Overcoming the challenge
As pioneering and ambitious programmes, it’s not surprising that the Dutch, Belgian and Polish schemes described above face hurdles. In Poland, environmental organisations have already criticised the slow pace of asbestos removal, complaining that inventorying was incomplete and claiming that removal – theoretically due by 2032 – would drag on until 2080 at the earliest.
Even the Netherlands’ more modest scheme shows that the experts’ concerns are well-founded. Working flat-out, the Dutch asbestos removal industry lacks the necessary capacity to deal with all asbestos roofing by 2024. Not all homeowners can afford to replace their roofs, but grants are only available for roofs above a certain size – and many of these have run out already, way ahead of 2024. For others, the only option may be DIY-removal, which is permitted with some restrictions, but which may come with a counter-productive risk of greater contamination and exposure.
Holland has targeted asbestos cement roofs – because the erosion of the roofs has been found to allow asbestos fibers to be released into the air as the cement matrix deteriorates after thirty years. Also, over the years, weathering and water runoff leads to contamination of the surrounding soil. The Dutch scheme shows a potential pitfall of removal legislation: unintended consequences. Without adequate funding, this may lead to an increase in DIY roof replacement that may make the situation worse.
There are other key issues in any large-scale removal programme: cost, safety, the lack of capacity, and the need for safe disposal of ACMs. So, aside from the insights gained in these countries’ more narrowly focused attempts, what would be needed to support a national or international scheme?
Risk-based, and realistic
For occupational hygienists like Martin Stear, it’s about setting appropriate risk-based surveying and removal standards, then ensuring they’re properly executed. “We’ve been removing asbestos on a large scale since the 1980s, but we keep going back to the areas we’ve stripped and re-cleaning them,” he says. “Areas are found to still be contaminated due to poor removal works – and sometimes even this is wrong. Sometimes an area is clean, but a surveyor has used an over-sensitive test and found some fibres.”
For compliance managers like Jon Chambers, any talk of a 10-year programme is completely unrealistic. He stresses that the industry would need guidelines and plans in place at an early stage to allow time for the necessary growth, and the required training and investment.
Addressing the problem properly would require a structured approach, he says: “I would suggest a risk-based programme where only hazardous materials are removed. Low-risk items can safely stay in situ for longer, and be removed further down the line.”
Unavoidably, any wide-ranging asbestos-removal programme would need to be enacted through legislation, and enforced and regulated by government bodies such as the HSE. As an example, Chambers suggests mandatory asbestos management plans for all public and private non-domestic buildings. “Make it a legal requirement that plans must specify the removal of all ACMs with a risk rating above a certain level, or any damaged or friable material,” he suggests.
Yvonne Waterman suggests that the key is to look at ways of making asbestos waste harmless – “We need a safe, effective and affordable denaturisation method. I am studying several quite different ones, because that is where the future of asbestos lies – being made into safe brick fillers in the circular economy. No more waste, no more dangers for future generations.
“The legislator and the asbestos-removal sector would need to work very closely together, each supporting the other. Additionally, we would need to find a safe, effective and affordable eradication method.”
Show me the money
In addition to the need for political will and the inherent complexity, there’s no getting away from the fact that removing all asbestos would be a colossal expense. “It is only money that could really make it work,” says Jon Chambers. “There would be a huge cost to any large-scale removal, and I have no idea where the money could come from.”
Yvonne Waterman agrees. “Eradication is hugely expensive, and we are hardly in a flush economic period. We would all like to have an asbestos-free country, but let’s be realistic: who will pay for it all?”
In a sense, however, we are – slowly – removing asbestos from the built environment. Managing in place is only possible for so long, and as ACMs reach the end of their life, or the buildings that contain them are refurbished, gradually they’re being removed. Older asbestos-containing properties are being demolished altogether. Provided the work is done with the proper controls, to the appropriate standards, the process is constantly reducing the amount of asbestos still ‘out there’, and lowering the risk of exposure. “Over the past decades, we can see that the air quality in terms of asbestos fibres in the Netherlands is improving considerably. This proves that the asbestos ban and regulations are effective.”, says Yvonne Waterman.
We’d all like to see faster progress, and perhaps in different times there will be the political will to pay for it. In the meantime, Jon Chambers reminds us of the simple, vital reason for the industry to carry on with its work: “The removal of asbestos safely will save lives in the long run.”
Header image by Flickr user Chilanga Cement, Creative Commons
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