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Ruth Williams DipCAM FCIM

The Risks and Effects on Health of Asbestos Exposure

August 2023

On 06 July 2023, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) published their latest work-related fatality figures. Within the statistics, HSE issued the annual figures for Mesothelioma, a cancer caused by past exposure to asbestos. 

The figures show 2,268 people died from the disease in 2021.

Asbestos-related diseases take decades to develop. Most people with them today will largely have been exposed before the tightening of controls, and asbestos was banned in 1999.

The history of asbestos legislation has spanned several decades, and the changes to legislation reflect the evolving understanding of the health risks associated with asbestos exposure. 

Here's a brief overview of Asbestos Regulation changes:

  1. Early 20th Century: Asbestos was widely used in various industries due to its heat-resistant properties and versatility. However, reports of health issues among asbestos workers began to emerge, raising concerns about the safety of asbestos exposure. The first reported medical case in the UK was reported in 1924. In 1931 the Asbestos Industry regulations came into force. These regulations sort to control the amount of asbestos dust in factories.
  2. 1950s-1960s: Medical evidence linking asbestos exposure to severe health conditions like asbestosis, lung cancer, and Mesothelioma became more apparent. Eminent scientist Richard Doll’s report ‘Mortality from Lung Cancer in Asbestos’ highlighted the link between Asbestos dust and cancer. As a result, governments and regulatory bodies worldwide started to take notice and initiate limited regulations to control asbestos use.
  3. 1970s: Many countries began enacting more comprehensive asbestos regulations. The US established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1970, introducing workplace standards for asbestos exposure. Other countries followed suit with their regulations. The Asbestos Regulations came into force in the UK on 14 May 1970. This was followed by introduction of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act.
  4. 1980s: As the scientific consensus on the dangers of asbestos exposure solidified, stricter regulations were implemented. In the UK in 1980, a voluntary ban was introduced on the import of brown asbestos, The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) introduced the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) in 1986 to manage asbestos in schools, and the EPA also attempted to ban most asbestos-containing products in 1989. However, the ban was overturned in court in 1991.
  5. 1990s-2000s: Many countries continued implementing more stringent regulations to reduce asbestos exposure. The European Union began banning certain types of asbestos-containing products, and various countries phased out asbestos use in construction and manufacturing. Efforts to ban asbestos continued, but legal and political challenges hindered a nationwide ban. In the UK in 2006, the control of asbestos regulations was enhanced.
  6. 2010s: Some countries, like Australia and Canada, continued to mine and export asbestos despite increasing global efforts to ban its use. In 2016, the US EPA finalised a "Significant New Use Rule" (SNUR) to restrict certain asbestos-containing products' import, manufacturing, and sale. In 2014 the Mesothelioma Act gave the UK Government the power to award damages to those who had developed the disease from being wrongly exposed. 
  7. Present and Future: Many countries have taken steps to restrict further or ban asbestos use. However, challenges remain, especially in regions where asbestos is still mined and used. Efforts to address existing asbestos-containing materials in older buildings and infrastructure also continue. 

In the UK, the current regulations state that where asbestos is present in buildings, it must be managed, maintained in good condition, and undisturbed. If this level of protection cannot be achieved, then asbestos must be removed.

According to the HSE, these regulations have led to a significant reduction in exposure. The number of people developing asbestos-related illnesses is predicted to fall as we get further from when asbestos was banned in 1999. 

Common Types of Asbestos 

Asbestos is a group of naturally occurring mineral fibres commonly used in various industries due to their heat-resistant and insulating properties. There are several types of asbestos, which can be broadly categorised into two mineral groups:

Serpentine Asbestos:

Chrysotile- Also known as white asbestos, chrysotile is the most used type of asbestos. It has curly fibres and is often used in insulation, textiles, and brake linings.

Amphibole Asbestos:

Amosite- Also referred to as brown asbestos, amosite has straight and sharp fibres. It was commonly used in insulation and other construction materials.

Crocidolite- Known as blue asbestos, crocidolite has fragile and brittle fibres. It was often used in applications requiring resistance to acid and high temperatures, such as in chemical industry equipment.

All forms of asbestos are hazardous to health when their fibres become airborne and are inhaled. Prolonged exposure to asbestos fibres can lead to serious respiratory diseases, including asbestosis, lung cancer, and Mesothelioma. As a result, the use of asbestos has been largely phased out in many industries, and regulations are in place to minimise the risks associated with asbestos exposure.

Asbestos Risk Assessment

The HSE advises that information, instruction and training for asbestos awareness will give workers and supervisors the information they need to risk assess working environments that may contain asbestos properly. The appropriate training will skill workers on how to avoid work that may disturb asbestos during any work which could disturb the fabric of a building or other items which might contain asbestos.

The Astutis Approved Asbestos Awareness Course covers the following topics:

  1. The properties, risks and effects on the health of asbestos exposure
  2. General knowledge of the types, uses, and likely occurrence of asbestos in buildings and plants
  3. How to avoid the risks of asbestos
  4. An overview of the legislation relating to asbestos.

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