Englands Deadly Legacy and Toxic Future
Data released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in July 2021 revealed that the English regions with the highest male mortality rates of malignant mesothelioma the signature cancer associated with asbestos exposure over recent years were: the North East (89.7)1, the East (71.4), the South East (71.3), the North West (68.8), the South West (65.3), Yorkshire and the Humber (64.8).2 Following up on the new data, regional newspapers detailed the situation in hotspots such as Barrow, Buxton, Sussex, Bolton and elsewhere with The Mail reporting on July 15, 2021 that mesothelioma had killed more than 300 people in Barrow over four decades 3
Mesothelioma UK CEO Liz Darlison was, she said, shocked at figures which showed 12,500 British mesothelioma fatalities in 2015-19, the highest number for any five-year period. Despite the fact that the use of asbestos had been banned in 1999, 5,000+ Britons were dying of asbestos-related diseases every year. Poor asbestos management and the lack of a long-term, government-led initiative to remove asbestos was, she believed, the cause of public health disaster number one.4
In 2020, the Work and Pensions Committee (the Committee) of the House of Commons had called on the Government to reform the HSE regime for handling asbestos pointing out that the UKs protocols were inferior to those practiced in France, Germany and the Netherlands, countries which had adopted state-of-the-art technologies and better management tools and systems.5 The Governments response was a defence of the status quo:
The present dynamic and proactive management of in situ asbestos, where it can safely remain in place or ensuring its safe removal if it cannot, is key together with effective systems to prevent unplanned physical disturbance. Importantly, HSE continues to proactively engage with dutyholders to ensure compliance with this duty, as this is the best way to protect people.6
Acknowledging the dire consequences of todays toxic asbestos exposures, on July 9, 2021, the Committee launched an inquiry into the HSEs policy and practices for managing the continued presence of asbestos in buildings to make sure monitoring and regulations are as effective and safe as they can possibly be.7 The deadline for submissions is September 17, 2021.
As was mentioned above, procedures mandated for safeguarding citizens from asbestos exposures in some European Union countries far outstrip our own. In the pre-Brexit debate, UK asbestos campaigners had pointed out that many of our asbestos protections had been achieved through EU directives and guidelines. Concerns were raised that in the Brexiteers brave new world, safety standards would be sacrificed in the cause of free trade.8
It is unquestionably the case that the asbestos hazard has a higher profile on the EUs agenda than on ours9 with Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) calling for the creation of a European strategy for the complete elimination of asbestos and [urging] all member states to adopt national action plans to implement that strategy.10 Removing asbestos now, said French MEP Véronique Trillet-Lenoir:
means avoiding passing on this burden to future generations and making a major investment in public health: the benefits are considerable, not only in terms of lives saved and pain avoided but also in terms of savings for social protection systems...
The HSEs asbestos policy is not fit for purpose. Tory Government cutbacks and rhetoric have insured that the designated agency tasked with overseeing occupational safety and health has been well and truly neutered. Whatever the results of the Parliamentary enquiry, it is likely that the EU will eradicate its asbestos contamination long before we do. The fact that each one of the five English regions worst affected by male mesothelioma deaths voted to leave the EU will, inevitably, mean that Brexit supporters will be living with asbestos contamination long after their continental counterparts.11 Without drastic action, the HSEs annual mesothelioma report12 will continue to showcase the effects of a callous disregard for human life year after year, decade after decade. Boris Johnson never put that on the side of his Vote Leave campaign bus!
July 21, 2021
1 These figures are for age-standardized mesothelioma deaths for the 3-year period 2017-2019.
2 HSE. Mesothelioma Statistics for Great Britain, 2021. July, 2021.
3 Barrow has above average asbestos-related deaths. July 15, 2021.
4 Bedendo, F. This is how many people have died from asbestos-related cancer in Mid Sussex. July 15, 2021.
5 Letter from MP Stephen Timms, Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee to Mims Davies Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Minister for Employment. Department for Work and Pensions. September 8, 2020.
6 Letter from Mims Davies, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Minister for Employment, Department for Work and Pensions to MP Stephen Timms, Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee. September 22, 2021.
7 UK Parliament. Health & Safety Executive approach to asbestos management examined. July 9, 2021.
8 Kazan-Allen, L. Asbestos Life and Death in Brexit Britain, Part II. Issue 106. British Asbestos Newsletter. Winter-Spring 2017-18.
9 Joint Union Asbestos Committee. Continuing Government Failure Lead to Rise in School Mesothelioma Deaths. July, 2021.
10 Peseckyte, G. MEPs are calling for complete elimination of cancer-causing asbestos. July 14, 2021.
11 Wikipedia. Results of the 2016 United Kingdom European Union membership referendum.
12 HSE. Mesothelioma Statistics for Great Britain, 2021. July, 2021.