Britain used to be one of the world’s largest importers of asbestos which, due to its versatility and properties, made it ideal for use in insulation, fire protection, reinforcement and many other purposes. However, due to the significant health risks involved with prolonged exposure to asbestos, in 1999 the UK government banned the importation, supply and use of all varieties of the material.1 By that point, six million tonnes of asbestos had been imported into the UK.2
Asbestos-related diseases in the UK
The microscopic fibres released when asbestos-containing materials are disturbed or damaged can lead to fatal diseases if inhaled, including lung cancer, mesothelioma (an asbestos-related cancer most commonly found in the lining of the lungs or the abdomen) and asbestosis (a chronic inflammatory and scarring disease affecting the tissue of the lungs). It can also cause non-malignant pleural disease and scarring to lung tissue.
Astonishingly, asbestos-related diseases kill more people in the UK than any other single work-related illness—around 5,000 per year. This is expected to continue at similar annual rates for many years to come because it can take decades for symptoms of asbestos-related diseases to appear. This means workers involved in the maintenance, refurbishment or demolition of older buildings still face a significant level of risk.
Did you know?
- 5,000 people a year die in the UK due to past exposure to asbestos.4
- There were over 3,000 known uses for asbestos in the UK.5
- Any building built before the year 2000 could contain asbestos.6
- Even small jobs, like drilling a hole, could expose you to asbestos risk.
The ATaC and NORAC Report
The first annual data analysis report into asbestos in UK buildings has been released after a collaboration between the National Organisation of Asbestos Consultations (NORAC) and Asbestos Testing and Consultancy (ATaC).7 It was produced in response to an inquiry into asbestos management in the UK in April 2022 by the Work and Pensions committee, and looks into how the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) manages the continued presence of asbestos in buildings.
The survey data, collected over a six-month period from October 2021 to March 2022, highlighted some concerning asbestos management failings—with a large percentage of sites containing asbestos with varying levels of damage.
1,016,783 items were reported, of which:
- 79% either contained asbestos or were presumed to contain asbestos.
128,761 sites were visited, of which:
- 78% contained asbestos.
- 94,116 were domestic properties of which 85% were found to contain asbestos.
- 63% of sites visited contained damaged asbestos.
710, 433 items of asbestos were found, of which:
- 71% were recorded as having some level of damage.
Source: First Annual Data Analysis Report into Asbestos in UK Buildings Published (atac.org.uk)
The data showed that, even 20 years on from the introduction of the duty to manage asbestos regulation, the amount of asbestos within the UK’s property portfolio is significantly higher than expected and the overall condition of the material is poorer than anticipated.
The HSE website contains comprehensive guidance on working with asbestos, including risk assessments, training for licensable and non-licensable work with asbestos, and useful resources and publications. Their guide to managing asbestos in buildings is a good place to start for businesses owning commercial properties built before the year 2000.
If you would like to talk to our specialist team about your asbestos risk, your legal obligations or any other aspect of your health and safety risk management including asbestos awareness training (UKATA approved), please get in touch with us on 0800 138 7538.