During 1920-1970 and 1971-2000, Europe used 48% and 58% of the world’s tradings of asbestos, making Europe the historical global centre of asbestos use; the UK, Germany, and France being the highest importers*. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, there was a building boom within the UK, in which amosite asbestos was used inside many public buildings as insulation/insulative products and chrysotile asbestos was used in the cement and cladding of the outside of buildings.
As such, the highest amount of asbestos-related diseases and resulting deaths are linked with European countries. Deaths relating to asbestos diseases including mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer reside at over 5,000 per year in the UK** (2017-2018). As of 2017, there are around 2,500 mesothelioma deaths in the UK every year***.
The need to know the risks
Much of amosite and crocidolite asbestos imported and manufactured in the UK was installed in buildings post-war. It was used where there was an increased need for fire protection, such as schools, hospitals and government buildings. So, what does this mean for the UK and individuals residing in public buildings that were built before the ban of asbestos use in buildings in 2000?
The asbestos was perceived to be less of an issue and threat to occupants within these buildings as less was known about the health risks associated with asbestos usage.
Asbestos that is in good condition and well managed (regularly surveyed to assess the condition of the asbestos, the use of appropriate signage, robust management procedures and relevant training in place to protect individuals from dangers) can be considered a low-level/manageable risk.
However, many UK schools, universities, hospitals and public buildings are not adequately maintained and are slowly degrading. The asbestos within these buildings is also degrading and can now be posing health risks to the building occupants.
The current standard airborne fibre analysis methodology most commonly used by the UK is Phase Contrast Microscopy (PCM) – a technique developed in the early 1960s offered by many asbestos management companies. This method is used to measure fibre concentrations in air in accordance with HSE statutory clearance levels but is rarely used to assess fibre levels below the clearance indicator and only measures respirable fibres – ie, does not discriminate between asbestos and non-asbestos fibres.
To conduct effective reassurance air testing and monitoring that goes far beyond the current HSE’s regulations of 0.01 f/ml and matches those of other European countries who are actively combatting their asbestos-related diseases, Lucion has invested in Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) technology with capability to assess the asbestos fibre concentration in the air effectively. Asbestos airborne fibre levels can be quantified and low-level background fibre concentrations can be understood and used to assess the impact of low-level background asbestos exposure for long periods of time.
Managing in situ
The reality is that we cannot remove all asbestos from buildings, so we need to use the best techniques to manage it in-situ, while targeting our resources to prioritise the removal of other higher-risk ACMs first. Through effective air testing and monitoring, the UK can manage their asbestos in situ (leaving the asbestos where it is but managing and protecting the asbestos containing materials, preventing exposure). Using effective SEM reassurance testing methods, this is a cost-effective and realistic solution to help manage the amount of asbestos present in public buildings.
Many organisations call for the complete removal of asbestos from all buildings nationwide. To put this in perspective, over 70% of schools within the UK are likely to contain asbestos-containing materials. To remove these potentially lethal materials is just not feasible due to costs and also the unnecessary removal of certain ACMs often creates a higher exposure risk than managing correctly in situ.
Following removal, landfill is the only commercially viable disposal method, and the impact of burying large quantities of carcinogenic material that can still be successfully managed in situ (not forgetting the associated costs) is another ethical decision that duty-holders face.
As a UKAS ISO 17025 accredited, trusted supplier of SEM testing and the UK market leaders in asbestos management, Lucion offers a specialised service, using an in-house SEM resource providing clients with greater risk management capabilities during air monitoring work, in occupied buildings or in external environments during land remediation. Be more than just compliant, with best-practice SEM air testing and monitoring.