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The importation, supply and use of all asbestos has been banned in the UK since 1999. Amphibole (blue and brown) asbestos has been banned in the UK since 1985, as this type is even more hazardous than serpentine (white) asbestos. Norway banned the use of asbestos in 1984, making it one of the early adopters of such regulations. Various other countries have also banned the importation and use of asbestos due to the serious health risks associated with its use.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral fibre that has been widely used in various industries as it is known for its heat-resistant and insulating properties. The properties of asbestos made it an ideal material for use in a number of products, such as insulation material for buildings, boilers and pipes, car brakes and floor tiles. It has also been used as insulating board to protect buildings and ships against fire.
The Global Asbestos Issue
When asbestos-containing materials are disturbed or damaged, microscopic fibres are released into the air. These can then be inhaled or ingested which poses significant health risks. Once inhaled, these fibres can become lodged in the lungs, which can cause inflammation and scarring over time.
There are three main types of asbestos:
- Blue (crocidolite).
- Brown (amosite).
- White (chrysotile).
Exposure to all three types of asbestos is hazardous and has been linked to serious health risks. None of the three types of asbestos can be used, sold or imported into the UK.
The latency period between asbestos exposure and the development of related diseases can span several decades.
Exposure to asbestos can lead to serious health issues, including:
- Lung cancer – exposure to asbestos increases the risk of developing lung cancer, particularly among people who smoke. Lung cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the lungs. The lungs are the respiratory organs that take oxygen in when you inhale and release carbon dioxide when you exhale. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide. In the UK lung cancer has high mortality rates. Cancer Research UK found that between 2016 and 2018 there were 48,549 new lung cancer diagnoses.
- Other respiratory diseases – asbestos exposure can contribute to other respiratory problems, including pleural plaques and pleurisy. Pleurisy is inflammation of the sheet-like layers that cover the lungs. The most common symptom of pleurisy is a sharp pain in the chest when breathing deeply. Sometimes the pain can also be felt in the shoulder.
- Asbestosis – long-term exposure to asbestos fibres can cause scarring of the lung tissue, a condition known as asbestosis. This can cause symptoms including difficulty breathing, coughing, and permanent lung damage.
- Mesothelioma – asbestos exposure is a well-established cause of mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive cancer which affects the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart. The symptoms are similar to those of many other respiratory or lung conditions. Mesothelioma kills over 2,500 people each year.
The global asbestos issue refers to the widespread use, health risks, and ongoing efforts to address the consequences of asbestos. Many countries have implemented strict regulations or banned the use of asbestos altogether due to its associated health risks.
While many developed countries have implemented strict regulations or banned the use of asbestos due to its known health risks, some countries still use asbestos in various applications. Examples of countries that have still not banned asbestos include the United States, Russia, China and India.
Country Case Studies
In the UK, asbestos was extensively used in various industries, including construction, shipbuilding and manufacturing, from the late 19th century until the mid-20th century. It was viewed as a useful material, valued for its durability and fire-resistant qualities. Over time, several health risks were directly linked to asbestos exposure. Studies linked asbestos to respiratory diseases, and by the 1960s and 1970s, there was growing awareness of the dangers of asbestos exposure.
The UK began implementing regulations to control asbestos use. In 1985, the UK banned the use of crocidolite (blue asbestos), and in 1999, it implemented a total ban on the import and use of all types of asbestos. The UK government established compensation schemes for people who developed asbestos-related diseases due to occupational exposure. Many buildings constructed before the asbestos bans still contain asbestos materials. This poses a risk if they become damaged or disturbed. The UK has regulations in place for the management and removal of asbestos in buildings.
The Control of Asbestos Regulations UK lays down the legal requirements for managing asbestos in the workplace. This legislation includes guidelines for identifying and assessing asbestos risks, as well as procedures for dealing with asbestos-containing materials. It is the primary legislation that outlines the legal requirements for managing asbestos in the UK. Workers who are involved in asbestos removal are required to undergo proper training and certification. Training programmes cover the safe handling of asbestos, removal techniques, and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE). Workers who are likely to come into contact with asbestos during their work are required to undergo asbestos awareness training. This training aims to educate them about the risks associated with asbestos and how to avoid exposure.
There have also been public awareness campaigns by the UK government, health organisations, and asbestos awareness groups in order to educate the public about the dangers of asbestos exposure. These campaigns often include information on where asbestos might be found, the associated health risks, and the importance of professional handling and removal.
Australia has strict regulations regarding the use, handling and disposal of asbestos. The country has been actively addressing the issue of asbestos, recognising its significant health risks, and has implemented various measures in order to phase out asbestos and manage its existing presence in the country.
The import, manufacture, supply and use of asbestos and asbestos-containing products have been banned since 2003. In 2012, the Australian government conducted a National Asbestos Management Review which assessed the effectiveness of existing legislation and recommended improvements. This review led to the development of the National Strategic Plan for Asbestos Awareness and Management. The plan focuses on raising awareness about the risks of asbestos, improving asbestos management practices, and supporting the safe removal and disposal of asbestos-containing materials.
Safe Work Australia provide information and resources for employers, employees and homeowners to manage asbestos safely. This includes information on identifying asbestos, conducting risk assessments, and implementing control measures. Australia also has designated disposal sites for asbestos waste. These sites adhere to strict regulations in order to prevent the release of asbestos fibres into the environment.
Canada was a major producer and exporter of asbestos, particularly from the mines in Quebec. The mineral was used extensively in various industries, including construction, shipbuilding and automotive manufacturing. With increased awareness of its dangers. The Canadian government and public health agencies began to acknowledge the need for strict regulations in order to protect workers and the general public. It wasn’t until 2018 that the Canadian government announced a ban on asbestos and asbestos-containing products, with the goal of reducing the risks associated with exposure. The ban prohibits the import, sale and use of asbestos and products containing asbestos, including in construction materials and automotive parts. The ban also addresses the environmental concerns related to asbestos.
Proper disposal measures and guidelines were put into place in order to prevent the release of asbestos fibres into the environment during construction or demolition activities. There have also been public awareness raising campaigns about the dangers of asbestos, safe practices, handling procedures, and the importance of early detection of asbestos-related diseases.
Positive outcomes may take time to fully materialise, due to the period of time it takes for symptoms to show in asbestos-related diseases, as symptoms may not appear for many years after exposure. The bans contribute to long-term health benefits by reducing the number of new cases of asbestos-related diseases and improving the overall health outlook for future generations.
The primary reason for asbestos bans is for the protection of public health. Asbestos exposure has been linked to serious respiratory diseases, including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. By banning asbestos, the UK has aimed to reduce the occurrence of these diseases and is therefore improving public health. Banning asbestos also helps prevent the release of asbestos fibres into the air and soil during demolition or renovation activities. This protects ecosystems and reduces the risk of environmental damage.
The UK’s commitment to banning asbestos has shown international leadership in addressing environmental and health concerns. It sets an example for other countries, and it promotes global awareness and demonstrates the importance of the regulation of hazardous substances.
By being aware and preventing asbestos-related diseases, the banning of asbestos contributes to a reduction in healthcare costs associated with the treatment and management of asbestos-related illnesses. This can have positive economic implications for the healthcare system and individuals.
Advances in medical research and treatments for asbestos-related diseases have also contributed to better management of these conditions. Early detection and improved treatment options can lead to better outcomes for individuals affected by asbestos-related diseases.
Challenges and Lessons Learned
Asbestos was a widely used material before bans were put into place and therefore having a complete ban posed some economic challenges. Balancing public health concerns with economic considerations posed a challenge for policymakers.
Other challenges included:
- Identification and removal of asbestos – identifying and removing existing asbestos from buildings and infrastructure presented practical challenges. Asbestos was widely used, and safely removing it without causing harm or releasing fibres into the environment required careful planning and preparation.
- Raising awareness with the public – ensuring that the public, as well as professionals in the construction and other related industries, were aware of the risks associated with asbestos exposure and that they understood the importance of compliance and new regulations was vital. Education campaigns were key to this and workers’ compliance was necessary to ensure safety moving forward was of paramount importance.
- Legal requirements – establishing legal and regulatory frameworks in order to enforce the ban of asbestos and monitor compliance was a complex process.
- Sourcing and using alternative materials – identifying and promoting the use of alternative materials in construction and manufacturing that did not pose health risks also posed a challenge.
- Raising international awareness – asbestos-related issues occur worldwide, and coordinating efforts with other countries and international organisations in order to address the global nature of the asbestos problem was an important factor and was also complex to achieve.
- Caring for old buildings – dealing with the legacy of old and important buildings and structures containing asbestos was a challenge. Carefully removing asbestos from older buildings without causing health hazards needed consideration.
- Resistance from industries affected by the asbestos ban – resistance from industries that were financially impacted by the asbestos ban, had the potential to slow down or hinder the implementation process.
- Monitoring and enforcing the ban – effectively monitoring and enforcing the ban was a continuous challenge.
The removal and replacement of asbestos should be carried out by trained and certified professionals due to the health risks associated with asbestos exposure. Asbestos removal and replacement is not an easy process in itself and there are several steps that need to be followed, including:
- An assessment and survey should be completed – before any removal or replacement work begins, a comprehensive asbestos survey is conducted by certified inspectors in order to identify the location, type and condition of asbestos-containing materials in the building.
- Notification and regulation compliance – the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) must be notified at least 14 days before starting any asbestos removal work.
- Isolation and preparation of the area – the work area is isolated in order to prevent asbestos fibres from spreading. Workers are required to wear PPE, including respiratory masks and disposable coveralls.
- Wetting – asbestos is often wet to minimise the release of fibres during removal.
- Removal – trained and licensed asbestos removal contractors will remove the asbestos materials using only specialised tools and techniques.
- Cleaning – the area is thoroughly cleaned using wet methods and HEPA vacuum cleaners in order to ensure any remaining asbestos fibres are fully removed.
- Waste disposal process – asbestos waste is transported to licensed disposal sites using only approved transport methods.
- A final inspection is completed – this is to confirm the successful removal of the asbestos.
All asbestos removal work must comply with HSE regulations.
Asbestos bans are essential for safeguarding public health by preventing asbestos-related diseases, protecting workers in various industries, raising awareness of the risks, and promoting the use of safer alternatives. The importance of banning asbestos is important in protecting human health and preventing avoidable diseases.
There are severe health risks associated with asbestos exposure, including some cancers and respiratory diseases. Mesothelioma is a particularly aggressive and often fatal cancer which is strongly linked to asbestos exposure. It usually affects the lining of the lungs, but it can also occur in the lining of the abdomen or the heart. As the consequences of asbestos use are so severe, education, knowledge and prevention are the most important steps in dealing with this issue globally.