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According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), there are more than 5,000 asbestos-related deaths each year in the UK. These figures incorporate individuals who died as a result of mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. The UK has one of the highest rates of mesothelioma in the world. This is said to be down to the country’s use of brown asbestos.
Though asbestos as a substance was once famed for its durability, fire resistance and low cost, its use has certainly left a sour taste in terms of what it’s left in its wake. Nowadays, the UK government and industries have made important improvements towards asbestos protection, management and regulation. However, the problem certainly isn’t over, given the latency of the associated conditions and the fact that there are still many buildings (those built before 2000) that contain asbestos products. This article will explore the research, alternatives and innovations determining the future of asbestos (or lack thereof) in the UK.
Research and development
The use of asbestos as a building material became widespread during the Industrial Revolution. It was used widely until the 1970s when usage started to decline due to research into its dangers.
There were suspicions of problems with asbestos going back to the first century AD; Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian, noted that people who wore clothes made from asbestos got sick and died. Despite this, it became a widely used substance until regulations banned it entirely in 1999. That said, there are estimated to be around 300,000 non-domestic buildings that contain asbestos in the UK. It’s also in many homes. These estimates are likely to be conservative, however.
In terms of those affected, research has shown that the peak of male mesothelioma deaths for men was around the year 2020, time will tell whether trends continue to decline. What’s more, the worst-affected are men born in the 1940s and the disease may actually account for 1% of deaths in this cohort.
Ongoing research efforts are dedicated to understanding asbestos and its related diseases. One of the longest pieces of research in asbestos is the Asbestos Workers Survey. This is a health surveillance survey set up in 1971 by the HSE.
Asbestos Workers Survey
This survey invited individuals who were working at premises covered by the Asbestos Regulations 1969. It involved a medical examination as well as a survey questionnaire. After 1983, when licensing regulations came into force, workers were also surveyed during their statutory medical exams.
People continue to be enrolled today, now under the latest regulations, the 2012 Control of Asbestos Regulations. As a result, there are over 100,000 asbestos workers involved. This information is stored confidentially and the questionnaire data is sent to the HSE to be processed.
The objective of the study is to identify patterns of asbestos-related diseases among workers exposed to the substance. It also explores factors that could influence the development of the disease, like the intensity of exposure and duration.
Sailors and the risk of asbestos-related cancer
There have been specific studies on certain cohorts and how their exposure to asbestos affects them, for instance, sailors. There were many studies on shipyard workers but research on sailors and their exposure was also conducted. Shipyard workers were exposed to high levels for the duration of their working day. Sailors, however, were at greater risk of exposure around the clock.
Researchers found that in eight U.S. hospitals, almost 20% of respiratory cancers were in seamen. In one particular hospital, 55% of seamen died of cancers compared to just under 28% of non-seamen. Other studies showed the same: there was elevated mortality and morbidity from asbestos-related diseases among sailors.
Genetic and molecular studies
There have been studies on the genetic alterations in lung cancer cases. This allows clinicians to choose treatments more appropriately. However, no one fully understands the role of asbestos in inducing epigenetic changes. It is believed that when cells are exposed to asbestos there are a lot of reactions and processes that change DNA and cell cycles.
There have been notable differences between lung cancer cases when asbestos hasn’t been involved compared to cases with asbestos exposure. Understanding these epigenetic changes to DNA means that targeted treatments can be sought. Unlike gene mutations, these can be reversed. However, more clinical trials are needed to confirm whether this epigenetic therapy is possible.
Biomarkers for early detection
Research on biomarkers for early detection aims to identify specific indicators that serve as early warning signs of asbestos-related conditions. These indicators can be detected through blood tests or other means and would allow for early diagnosis and timely interventions.
Here are some examples found in research:
- Mesothelin: This is a protein that has promise to be a potential biomarker for asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma. Studies have shown that individuals exposed to asbestos have elevated levels of mesothelin.
- MicroRNA Signatures: These are small molecules that regulate gene expression. Altered expression of particular microRNAs is associated with asbestos-related diseases. These could serve as early biomarkers for disease.
- Circulating Tumour Cells (CTCs): These are cancer cells that are circulating in the bloodstream after detaching from the primary tumour. Research suggests that testing for these can indicate the potential presence of asbestos-related cancer.
Alternatives to asbestos
Aside from the research and development into asbestos-related diseases that is underway, it’s clear that asbestos is no longer viable as a building material. Over the last three decades, researchers have been looking for alternatives that offer similar benefits to asbestos but without the risks to health. These include fabrics with fire-resistant properties and insulating materials.
Here are some common alternatives and their benefits and drawbacks:
Fibreglass is popular as an insulation material. It is non-combustible, lightweight and provides good acoustic and thermal insulation. It is also strong and stiff. However, fibreglass production is energy-intensive and the material, though not dangerous like asbestos, can cause skin irritation during its installation. Fibreglass is used often in:
- Storage tanks
This is made from recycled wood or paper fibres. This makes it both eco-friendly and cost-effective. Cellulose fibre also has good thermal properties and is often used for insulation. However, some concerns exist about how resistant it is to fire and pests.
This is made from slag or rock and offers great thermal insulation, fire resistance and sound absorption. It is used in building insulation and other industrial applications. It is, however, heavier than other alternatives and its manufacture can involve high-energy consumption.
This is used in lots of automotive and domestic applications like headrests, armrests and seating. The foam is an excellent insulator and is used in spray applications. It can be applied as a liquid that expands to fill cavities and gaps. However, there are drawbacks to this substance. Firstly, the foam might release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) both during and after installation. Secondly, the foams aren’t biodegradable and so have a larger environmental footprint.
This is a lightweight and rigid material that is resistant to fire, pests and water. It is often used in roofs and insulation. It is, however, expensive compared to other alternatives to asbestos. This is made from glass cells with sand and recycled glass as its base materials.
Natural fibre insulation
Natural fibres can also be used as insulation materials. Materials like wool and hemp are sustainable and renewable alternatives that can be used as insulation. These are also biodegradable. The downside to these is that they are largely more expensive and they might not be as durable in the long term.
Innovations in asbestos removal
In the past, the removal of asbestos was resource-intensive and disruptive. However, with forward-thinking approaches and robotic systems guided by AI, there could well be safer alternatives to traditional removal methods on the horizon. There are also encapsulating materials that are being created to contain the fibres to prevent them from being released into the air and the environment during any refurbishment or demolition projects. These innovations mean that both workers and the surrounding environment are protected from contamination.
Here are some innovative techniques:
Encapsulation and enclosure
Instead of removing asbestos outright, this technique involves applying a sealant or otherwise protective coating on the material. This prevents asbestos fibres from being released into the air. Enclosure is similar in that it creates an airtight barrier around the material so no fibres are released into the surroundings. Both of these methods are cost-effective and less disruptive.
When asbestos is wet, either with water or another agent, it reduces the release of airborne asbestos fibres. This lowers the risk for workers and others in the surrounding environment.
High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration systems
HEPA filtration systems capture and filter out asbestos fibres in the air during asbestos removal. These systems are built into special equipment like vacuum cleaners. They prevent any fibres from becoming airborne.
Robots can be used to remove asbestos. They can be built with specialised tools and cameras to perform removal tasks from a distance. This minimises human exposure to asbestos.
Alternative abrasive blasting methods
Traditional methods like sandblasting can release asbestos fibres. Alternative methods like sponge blasting or dry ice blasting can be a better way to prepare surfaces where asbestos is present.
Disposable containment units
Portable units with built-in filtration and ventilation can be used to isolate asbestos removal areas. These can then be disposed of to prevent contamination.
Regulatory changes and safety measures
Many governments around the world have been making changes and introducing new safety measures for decades. The changes include developing guidelines and regulations for the use of asbestos as well as for its removal and disposal.
The UK’s regulations are governed by the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012. These outline the key responsibilities of employees and their employers to manage the risks associated with asbestos work.
Here is a summary of the safety measures:
Identification and assessment
Duty holders must identify and assess the presence of asbestos in non-domestic buildings like commercial, public and industrial properties. Asbestos surveys are used to determine where asbestos is located and the condition of the materials.
It’s an obligation for duty holders to manage risks. This might mean implementing control measures and, in some cases, asbestos will need to be removed.
Employers must train employees when their work might involve them coming across asbestos.
Asbestos removal licensing
Certain asbestos removal activities require a licence. Anyone (company or individual) carrying out these activities needs to have a licence issued by the HSE.
Prohibition on importation and use
In the UK, it is illegal to import, supply and use asbestos or asbestos-containing materials. However, there are some exceptions.
Duty to manage asbestos in buildings
Where asbestos or asbestos-containing materials are in buildings, there needs to be a register of its location and condition. There should then be an accompanying asbestos management plan.
Individuals will have different responsibilities depending on their job. Here are some examples:
- Building owner or landlord: There is a legal duty to manage any asbestos in the building. Individuals must find out if asbestos is present, arrange a survey, assess the risks, have an asbestos register, prepare a risk assessment and review it frequently, and inform anyone working on the building.
- Person responsible for maintaining a building: There are the same legal duties as a building owner if you are responsible for building repairs and maintenance.
- Employer: The employer must find out if asbestos is present in a building before work starts and if it is, follow regulations.
- Worker: Workers should learn about why asbestos is dangerous and where it is commonly found.
- Licensed contractor: The Control of Asbestos Regulations outline licensable work as work where the exposure is high intensity and not sporadic.
- Asbestos surveyor: This person carries out asbestos surveys. There are two survey types. One is a management survey, and the other is a refurbishment or demolition survey.
- Asbestos analyst: This individual analyses samples to confirm the presence of asbestos.
Environmental considerations of asbestos use and disposal
The disposal of asbestos poses particular challenges. Asbestos waste includes any materials either containing or contaminated by asbestos, including dust, rubble, tools, disposable PPE and cleaning cloths. Waste has to be placed in suitable containers that are properly sealed and labelled.
Double-bagging is essential. The standard practice, according to the HSE, is to use a red bag first. This should have asbestos warning labels visible. Then, on top of the red bag, you should use a clear bag with hazard markings. If pieces of asbestos remain intact, i.e., in a sheet, they shouldn’t be broken down to fit in smaller bags. Instead, these need to be double-wrapped in 1000-gauge polythene sheeting and labelled.
In conclusion, the future of asbestos in the UK is characterised by innovation. With cutting-edge detection, robotics and new technology, the future is looking brighter for asbestos-related risks. The latent nature of asbestos-related health conditions as well as the prevalence of asbestos in older buildings highlight a continued need for vigilance. However, research efforts, like the Asbestos Workers Survey, are helping to contribute to a deeper understanding of asbestos-related diseases. Alternatives like fibreglass and natural fibres offer hope for safer construction materials so that in time there will no longer be risks to health from asbestos in the UK.