25th May, 2022
It might surprise you to know that asbestos was only fully banned in the UK construction industry in 1999. You have probably heard of the dangers of asbestos, and the health hazards have been known for decades. So why did it take so long to ban asbestos?
Unless you have been living down an asbestos mine for the last 30+ years, you have probably heard of the dangers of asbestos.
If you work in construction, then it's pretty much the law for you to know about asbestos and its risks.
But, if everyone knows asbestos is bad news, then why was it used so much in UK construction? And why wasn't it banned from the beginning?
To understand, let's start at the end and work our way backwards (hindsight is a wonderful thing!).
It might surprise you to know that asbestos was only fully banned in the UK construction industry in 1999.
But the dangers were known much earlier and certain types of asbestos were banned earlier, in the '80s.
Three types of asbestos were commonly used in UK construction - blue (crocidolite), brown (amosite) and white (chrysotile).
Blue (crocidolite) and brown (amosite) asbestos were banned in 1985. These were considered the most dangerous types of asbestos used in the UK.
White (chrysotile) asbestos was not included in the initial ban and remained in use until it was finally banned in the UK in 1999. That's nearly 15 years after the first asbestos bans!
This 1999 ban made the manufacture and supply of all asbestos products illegal in the UK.
You can find out more about the different types of asbestos in our blog post Asbestos Types And Colours Explained.
So why was asbestos used in the first place, and what happened to get it banned?
Let's go back in time, to before the ban.
Asbestos is actually a brilliant building material because it is:
With those credentials, why wouldn't you use it? Asbestos was a wonder material, used in nearly every construction project you can imagine.
At its peak, asbestos was used in over 3000 products, from asbestos cement and insulation, to mattresses and textured coatings.
At the end of the 1800s, asbestos became popular due to the industrial revolution and a boom in the construction industry.
And it was used a lot! Asbestos was a hugely popular building material.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring material found throughout the world, so it was pretty easy to get. In the 1920s the UK imported around 21 thousand tonnes per year, by 1950 we were importing over 100 thousand tonnes a year.
At its peak use in the '60s and '70s, we imported over 170,000 tonnes of asbestos to the UK a year!
People were getting ill, and dying, from asbestos exposure.
It was fairly well known that asbestos was a major health risk, even the Romans (one of the early adopters of Asbestos) noted a 'sickness of the lungs'.
The warning signs were there.
In the 1920s and 1930s concern was growing in the UK, but so was the use of asbestos. Because asbestos-related illnesses take time to develop, symptoms were showing in those exposed decades earlier. By the '70s and '80s, the pressure was mounting for a ban.
All asbestos kills: blue, brown and white. It should be remembered also that it is a long time since the first warnings of the dangers of asbestos were given to the Government. The Home Office first received an official warning of the dangers 77 years ago.
Those tiny asbestos fibres that are so good for construction, are deadly for the human body.
If you inhale asbestos fibres, they can embed themselves in your lungs and cause all sorts of problems (known as asbestos-related diseases).
Years after exposure, you will start to struggle with your breathing, noticing shortness of breath, and coughing. This can develop and become more painful as breathing becomes restricted.
Oh, and if that's not bad enough, asbestos-related diseases are usually fatal.
Find out more about the risks of asbestos in asbestos symptoms and related diseases.
Today, over 5000 people die each year because of asbestos exposure.
To put that into context, that's double the annual fatalities as a result of road traffic accidents.
Inhalation of asbestos fibres can cause cancers such as mesothelioma and lung cancer, and other serious lung diseases such as asbestosis and pleural thickening.
For something that was banned nearly 20 years ago, why are people still dying? Do some cowboy construction companies still use it? Is there an asbestos black market in the UK?
No, asbestos isn't still used. But it was used so much in the past. And many of these buildings still exist today.
Asbestos materials are still present in hundreds of thousands of buildings in the UK.
While the ban prevented asbestos materials from being used in construction going forward, it did not ban asbestos materials already in use.
Some buildings used asbestos so heavily that it would cost millions to remove it. Some asbestos materials are used right down to the building structure, so the only way they can be removed will be by demolishing the building itself.
And you can't see asbestos, so the exact location of materials in every building isn't always known.
Asbestos-containing materials can be found throughout buildings in the UK. Existing asbestos materials can stay in use until they reach the end of their service life.
Asbestos materials only become a danger when they are disturbed (like in construction work) or degrade. As long as asbestos is in good condition, people are safe.
Only asbestos trained operatives should carry out asbestos removal work. Certain types of asbestos require a license.
Even though asbestos materials cannot be used in construction projects today, most construction workers still need to be aware of asbestos and asbestos is still an important topic.
Although it is banned, you are still likely to find asbestos if you work in buildings or structures built before 2000.
Remember, all asbestos is dangerous. No type or colour of asbestos is safe. Use the free asbestos awareness toolbox talk to stay refreshed.
This article was written by Emma at HASpod. Emma has over 10 years experience in health and safety and BSc (Hons) Construction Management. She is NEBOSH qualified and Tech IOSH.
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