Asbestos Finally Banned in the United Kingdom
The UK's asbestos century ended on August 24, 1999, one month after the European Union (EU) banned chrysotile. The Asbestos (Prohibitions) (Amendment) Regulations 1999, signed by Deputy Prime Minister Prescott, came into force on November 24, 1999 five years ahead of the European deadline. Chrysotile had been the only type of asbestos permitted in the UK since amosite and crocidolite were banned in 1985. Statutory Instrument No. 2373 forbids the import of crude fiber, flake, powder or waste chrysotile and the new use of asbestos cement, boards, panels, tiles and other products. Chrysotile-containing products installed prior to November 24, 1999 can remain in place until they reach the end of their service life. The sale of second-hand asbestos cement products and building materials covered with asbestos-containing coatings is forbidden. Two pages of time-limited derogations apply to specialist items such as "diaphragms in electrolytic cells in existing electrolysis plants for chloralkali manufacture," and "split face seals of at least 150 millimetres in diameter used to prevent leakage of water from hydro-electric power generation turbines..." The residual problem of brake linings was dealt with in a complementary piece of national legislation that implemented European Commission Directive 98/12/EC. Laid under the Consumer Protection Act, the Road Vehicles (Brake Linings Safety) Regulations 1999 prohibited "the supply, exposure for supply or fitting to a motor vehicle or trailer of brake linings containing asbestos" as of October 1, 1999.
While the chrysotile prohibitions were expected, their arrival during the dog days of the Summer parliamentary recess was surprising. Perhaps Ministers believed vacationing representatives of the asbestos industry and producer governments would remain unaware of the new legislation. The low-key announcement was understandable in light of the industry's increasingly desperate attempts to counter growing anti-asbestos sentiment. Diplomatic threats and sabre-rattling had delayed UK legislation for two years. When Labour first came to power, Prime Minister Blair expressed his determination to "deal effectively with the problems of asbestos." Environment Minister Angela Eagle told the House of Commons that "a mechanism for introducing a domestic ban on the import, supply and use of asbestos" was being investigated. In the weeks and months that followed, it became clear that more cautionary counsels had prevailed. A year after her first statement, Eagle commented: "Any decision by the UK Government to proceed with further restrictions on the importation, supply and use of chrysotile will be based on robust scientific evidence, thereby fulfilling obligations under World Trade Agreements." The reason for the deceleration was simple: on May 28, 1998 the Government of Canada lodged a request with the World Trade Organization (WTO) for consultations with the European Commission "concerning certain measures taken by France for the prohibition of asbestos and products containing asbestos." Should the UK follow the French lead, it might well receive similar attention. A decision was taken to adopt a more circuitous strategy: a UK ban would be pursued under the protective cover of European mobilization. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) personnel worked closely with their counterparts at Directorate General (DG) III of the European Commission. In 1997, a senior HSE official had been seconded to DGIII to work on the draft legislation. In response to an EU appeal for information, the HSE commissioned a report entitled Chrysotile and Its Substitutes: A Critical Evaluation for submission to the Scientific Committee on Toxicity, Ecotoxicity and the Environment. Statements by government spokesmen emphasized the importance of the HSE's input into the consultation and decision-making process. Sir Frank Davies, Chairman of the Health and Safety Commission, said: "We have worked long and hard to secure a ban for the good of Europe as a whole, taking a leading role in helping to establish a solid scientific foundation for it." John Prescott believes that the UK "played a leading role in securing sound science around the safety of alternatives, without which there most probably would have been no ban."
May 2, 2000