Asbestos Life and Death in Brexit Britain: Part II  

by Laurie Kazan-Allen




Figures just released by the National Audit Office1 confirm the inexorable rise of asbestos fatalities in England and Wales with hundreds of deaths in 2015 and 2016 in the South East, the East, the North West, the South West and Yorkshire and Humber.2 The largest increases between 2015 and 2016 were recorded in Cornwall, Brighton and Hove, South Tyneside and Swale.3 It is of interest that while the latest available HSE figure for annual mesothelioma deaths in Great Britain was 2,542 (in 2015), the total number of mesothelioma deaths in England and Wales reported by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) were 2,308 (2015) and 2,313 (2016). Considering the high incidence of asbestos-related deaths in Scotland, the 2016 ONS figures are indicative that mesothelioma mortality in Great Britain remains on an upward trajectory. Compounding the concerns over the ongoing epidemic are fears that a post-Brexit trade deal between the UK and the US could result in asbestos-containing products being imported into the country despite Britain’s asbestos ban. Expressing her reservations, Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas said:

“Theresa May is desperate to sign up to a trade deal with Donald Trump. Much of the likely cost of such a deal – like forcing chicken washed in chlorine and hormone-fed beef on to our shelves – are already known, but the risk we could see asbestos contaminated products come back on to the UK market is not. We all know Donald Trump does not take prisoners when it comes to trade deals. If he decides that asbestos-contaminated products must be included in a deal, he will not give way. US asbestos use has fallen dramatically, but there is still no national ban, and any asbestos poses a threat to human health.” 4

Despite Brexit Secretary David Davis’ pledge that Brexit would not result in a “Mad Max-style dystopia” of deregulation,5 UK trade union leaders remain unconvinced. Hugh Robertson, Senior Policy Officer for Health and Safety at the Trades Union Congress, said:

“Generations of British workers have suffered ill health and premature deaths due to their occupational exposures to asbestos. Millions of tonnes of asbestos-containing products remain within the national infrastructure and despite strict health and safety protocols, toxic exposures remain a fact of life for many workers. We must ensure that, in the future, current protections are not only maintained but improved.”

Commenting on the potential watering down of health and safety standards post Brexit, Graham Dring, Chair of the UK Forum of Asbestos Victims Support Groups (the Forum), said:

“Just recently there has been a huge furore over the presence of asbestos in cosmetics sold by a US company for use by children. This month (March 2018), a US consumer watchdog found tremolite asbestos in three products sold by Claire’s, a national retailer – with international outlets – of cosmetics, jewellery and novelties for children and young adults. Last year, other Claire’s products were recalled in the US and Canada after tests showed asbestos contamination. As asbestos is not banned in the US, the sale of some asbestos-containing building and automotive products remains legal. The Forum’s view is that any new trade deals must not dilute current protections and allow products containing asbestos into the UK through the back door.”6

In February, 2018, the European Chemicals Agency reported that the results of tests undertaken in 2016 on 5,625 products by 29 European countries, including the UK, revealed that overall 18% failed to conform with EU regulations and that 14% of the products tested for asbestos were non-compliant.7 Anecdotal evidence and actions by the the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the UK body responsible for the enforcement of workplace health and safety protocols, support the conclusion that the inflow of illegal asbestos goods into the country is not a rarity. On November 7, 2017, the HSE announced it was investigating reports that: “a small number of UK users… may have been supplied with [asbestos] contaminated shot-blasting material” by the Dutch Eurogrit company.8 Seven weeks later (on December 21, 2017), it was reported that the:

“HSE has made enquiries with each of the duty holders who bought the materials in question. We are satisfied that the material will not be used in the UK and have nothing further to say on this issue, at this time.”9

Also in December 2017, the HSE issued an alert (Reference EFA/2017/006) over the use of asbestos-containing pipe gaskets (CNA 2000) put into circulation by a British engineering company between 2006 and 2010. The contaminated products were manufactured by G&H Engineering Services with material imported from China that had been sold as asbestos-free. According to an HSE letter dated October 30, 2017 efforts in 2011 to alert customers “may not have been fully circulated further down the supply chain.”10 In 2016, following a high-profile scandal regarding the illegal export of asbestos construction material from China to Australia by Yuanda Australia,11 the HSE mounted an investigation into the composition of material imported by Yuanda (UK) Co. Ltd. and the supply chain used for obtaining these products.12 On October 31, 2016, Hannah Doherty in the HSE’s Compliance Branch reported that the case review had been completed and that:

“Given that no evidence has been found to indicate the presence of asbestos, and looking at all the available information in detail, it has been decided to close the investigation and take no further action. Of course, if in the future any new evidence indicating the presence of asbestos comes to light, we will investigate this in line with our producers.”13

No one knows how much of the 7 million tonnes of asbestos imported into the UK during the 20th century remains in place. With the world’s highest asbestos-related disease mortality rate14 and regulatory authorities facing brutal financial cutbacks, the last thing anyone wants is the import of more toxic material or a watering down of health and safety protections. Unfortunately, with so many uncertainties ahead and a desperate Tory government in charge, there are no guarantees. One thing, however, is clear: Britain’s asbestos epidemic will be with us for decades to come.

May 13, 2018

[This article first appeared in Issue 106 of the British Asbestos Newsletter (Winter-Spring 2017-18); its precursor – Asbestos Life and Death in Brexit Britain – can be found in Issue 105 of the Newsletter (Autumn 2017) – see reference 2, below.]


1 Office of National Statistics. Mesothelioma deaths by local authority, England and Wales, registered between 2015 and 2016. March 5, 2018.

2 Kazan-Allen L. Asbestos Life and Death in Brexit Britain. Issue 105, Autumn 2017. British Asbestos Newsletter.

3 HSE. Health and Safety Statistics. November 1, 2017.

4 Buchan, L. Brexit: US trade deal could raise prospect of bringing asbestos products to UK, MP claims. March 11, 2018.

5Asthana A, Boffey D, Elgot J. David Davis: Brexit will not plunge Britain into ‘Mad Max dystopia.’ February 19, 2018.

6 Under Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, the use of asbestos remains legal in the US in: cement corrugated sheet, cement flat sheet, clothing, pipeline wrap, roofing felt, vinyl floor tile, cement shingle, millboard, cement pipe, automatic transmission components, clutch facings, friction materials, disk brake pads, drum brake linings, brake blocks, gaskets, non-roofing coatings and roof coatings.
EPA. Examples of asbestos-containing products not banned.

7 European Chemicals Agency. Forum Ref-4 Project Report. Harmonised Enforcement Project on Restrictions. February 2018.

8 Email from Jack Rimmer, HSE to Laurie Kazan-Allen. November 7, 2017.
Kazan-Allen L. Another Asbestos Debacle. British Asbestos Newsletter. Autumn 2017.

9 Email from Emma Deeny, HSE to Laurie Kazan-Allen. December 21, 2017.

10 Supply of CAN 2000 pipeline gaskets: presence of asbestos. December 7, 2017.

11 Burrell A. New cases for asbestos scare firm Yuanda. September 16, 2016.

12 Letter from the HSE to Mr. Dring and Ms. L. Kazan-Allen. August 16, 2016.

13 HSE. Letter to Ms. Kazan-Allen and Mr Dring. October 31, 2016.

14 GBD Risk Factors Collaborators. Global, regional, and national comparative risk assessment of 84 behavioural, environmental and occupational, and metabolic risks or clusters of risks, 1990–2016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016. September 16, 2017.


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