Asbestos Landscape 2019: EU 4, UK 0
Throughout Europe, the legacy of widespread asbestos use continues to manifest itself in cancer registries and coroners courts. A publication released in December 2018, by Eurogip a French organization which investigates issues related to insurance, prevention of accidents at work and occupational diseases in Europe and abroad highlighted the human costs of asbestos consumption in key European countries: Germany, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Sweden and Switzerland.1 The 24-page Eurogip report Incidence and detection of occupational cancers in nine European countries found that
In every country except Germany, cancers due to asbestos dust accounted for the overwhelming majority of cancers recognized as an occupational disease in 2016. For example, mesotheliomas represented more than 30% of occupational cancers in Denmark, 50% in Austria and Italy, 65% in Belgium and around 90% in Sweden Asbestos-related lung cancers are also predominant in Belgium (25% of the total), in Italy (23%), in Austria (28%) and especially in France (over half of occupational cancers). They are probably also predominant in Denmark; the Danish statistical classification is organized according to the organ affected and covers a number of possible exposures, which makes it impossible to know the exact number of asbestos-related lung cancers.2
Meanwhile, across the Channel, the UK asbestos epidemic is, according to Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics, responsible for 5,000 deaths a year from mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.3 In a publication released in October, 2018, the HSE noted:
Annual deaths increased steeply over the last 50 years, largely as a result of asbestos exposure prior to 1980, and are now expected to continue at current levels for the rest of the decade before declining.
Considering that previous predictions regarding a deceleration of asbestos mortality have failed to materialise, the HSEs optimism should be treated with caution especially in light of findings that UK asbestos safety regulations and preventative measures are weaker than those in other European countries.4 Unfortunately, the UK also lags far behind its neighbours in looking after those at high risk of contracting asbestos-related diseases:
[In Germany] the medical examinations are performed every 12 to 36 months, depending on the level of exposure, the time elapsed since the first exposure [to asbestos] and the persons age. These examinations performed by specially trained doctors, consist of a study of the subjects medical history, work career and tobacco behaviour, a clinical examination, spirometric testing and when indicated an X-ray examination of the respiratory tracts
From 1972 to 2016, 601,134 workers were registered with GVS [The Central Registration Agency for Employees Exposed to Asbestos Dust]. At the end of 2016, 87,673 people were subjected to screening tests because they were still exposed to asbestos during their work (building demolition and renovation), and 243,655 because of prior exposure. The number of diseases caused by asbestos dusts detected by this monitoring scheme is estimated at about 900 each year.
Nationwide monitoring of asbestos-exposed workers such as that provided by the German health surveillance scheme facilitates earlier detection of asbestos-related diseases thereby5 increasing treatment options and improving medical outcomes; no such scheme is operational in the UK despite evidence that:
lung screening for people at high risk of lung cancer could reduce deaths from the disease A European study found the number of lung cancer deaths among men at high risk of lung cancer was 26% lower in those who had screening with a CT scan.6
The myopic outlook of UK authorities such as the National Screening Committee and NHS England is confirmed by the formers failure to implement medical surveillance for the asbestos-exposed and the latters provision of £50 million over the next five years for a health screening program for survivors and first responders to the Grenfell Tower disaster. In the face of the long latency periods of asbestos-related diseases varying from 10 to 50 years the short-term nature of this initiative renders it useless for anyone unlucky enough to contract an asbestos-related disease as a result of toxic exposures during and after this man-made disaster.7
Elsewhere in Europe, municipal, regional and central authorities have implemented policies to encourage and even subsidize asbestos remediation:
None of this has happened in the UK.
The UKs failure to address the issue of low and medium-level exposures to asbestos in schools continues to endanger the health of children as well as staff. A report on Academy Accounts and Performances compiled by the Public Accounts Committee and presented to Parliament on January 23, 2019 was categorical about the incompetence of some schools to manage asbestos:12
Nearly a quarter of schools have still not provided the information that the Department needs to understand fully the extent of asbestos in school buildings and how the risks are being managed. We remain seriously concerned about the Departments lack of information and assurance about asbestos in school buildings as we first reported in April 2017. The Department launched its asbestos management assurance process on 1 March 2018 to collect data on how asbestos in schools is being managed, and to provide assurance that academy trusts and local authorities are complying with their legal duties. The Department asked schools to respond by 31 May 2018. Due to the poor response rate, it extended the deadline to 25 June 2018 and then extended it again to 27 July 2018. Despite this, only 77% of schools have responded and the Department has extended the deadline yet again, to 15 February 2019, to allow the remaining 23% of schools to respond. The Department says that those schools that do not respond will be picked up in its school condition survey. However, we are not convinced that extending the survey deadline again will result in a much higher response rate, or that the condition survey will provide the level of specific assurance needed about how asbestos is being managed.
Recommendation: In March 2019, the Department should name and shame those schools which did not meet the February 2019 deadline and which have therefore repeatedly failed to respond to its asbestos management survey. 13
The UK Governments intransigence on its policy regarding asbestos in schools was confirmed on November 26, 2018 in a Parliamentary reply by Nick Gibb, the Secretary of State for Education, to a question from MP Jim Cunningham who had asked: what steps his Department is taking to assist with the removal of asbestos from schools in England. The Minister replied:
Advice from the Health and Safety Executive is that if asbestos is unlikely to be damaged or disturbed, then it is best managed in situ While asbestos will be removed over time from the school estate as part of any rebuilding or refurbishment programme, the Department has not committed to the phased removal of all asbestos by a specific date.14
Media reports about asbestos incidents in school are routine with articles highlighting toxic exposures to children in Coventry,15 Cumbria,16 and Aberdeen17 in recent months. Clearly, the preferred government option in which schools manage asbestos safely is unrealistic and dangerous. With the likelihood of a further downgrading of health and safety precautions by a government caught up in the Brexit maelstrom, the situation in the UK can only get worse.
February 4, 2019
1 The fact that the UK was excluded from this review was not, we believe, due to Brexit; a similar report by Europgip published in 2006 also omitted data from the UK: Asbestos-related occupational diseases in Europe.
2 Eurogip. Incidence and detection of occupational cancers in nine European countries. December, 2018.
3 HSE. Asbestos-related diseases in Great Britain, 2018. October, 2018.
4 Kaur, H. UK must bring its safety rules in line with the rest of Europe. September 17, 2018.
5 Eurogip. Incidence and detection of occupational cancers in nine European countries. December, 2018.
6 Screening scans 'could cut lung cancer deaths. September 28, 2018
7 Agerholm, H. Grenfell Tower fire: NHS announces £50m health-screening programme in wake of asbestos fears. October 9, 2018.
8 Opruimen van asbestdaken verdubbeld, nieuw fonds in 2019 [Clearing asbestos roofs doubled, new funds in 2019]. January 19, 2019.
9 Gmina Sztum wnioskuje o dofinansowanie usuwania azbestu. Złóż wniosek! [Sztum applies for co-financing for the removal of asbestos. Submit an application!]. May 9, 2018.
10 Pozbądź się azbestu [Getting rid of asbestos]. January 9, 2018.
11 Lax, G. In arrivo il bonus Amianto [The asbestos bonus is coming]. September 8, 2018.
12 Academy accounts and performance. Conclusions and recommendations. January 23, 2019.
13 Academy accounts and performance. Conclusions and recommendations. January 23, 2019.
14 Schools: Asbestos: Written question 194035. November 26, 2018.
15 Worrying asbestos find in two thirds of Coventry schools. January 4, 2019.
16 Johnston, L. Secret asbestos in our schoolskilling 400 victims a year. September 2, 2018.
17 £23,000 asbestos training for Aberdeen City Council staff. January 25, 2019.