Posted on November 8, 2019

Stories of asbestos being illegally dumped, improperly handled or found in the cavities of old houses are alarmingly commonplace, not just in the US but around the world. What’s less appreciated is the role of government institutions in the maintenance of asbestos, and the responsibility they have for public safety. A spate of stories out of the UK about asbestos on military sites has brought this into stark relief, and should pose questions for countries worldwide.

What is often thought of as yesterday’s problem remains shockingly relevant in 2019, and continues to cause long-term harm. With the latency of many asbestos-related diseases being as long as fifty years, military personnel may be suffering the consequences for another half century. With asbestos being such a problem on government-run sites, and the continuing issue of asbestos liability in public housing, the question has to be this: are governments taking the asbestos issue seriously?

Armed and dangerous

A recent story with potentially far-reaching consequences centers on a military base in Gloucestershire, England. Testing at DE&S Ashchurch – the UK’s biggest storage site for military vehicles and equipment – found that the entire site was heavily contaminated with asbestos, including buildings, surfaces and equipment. Since this discovery, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) has closed a number of buildings for cleanup.

However, with much of the equipment remaining in place and some buildings staying open, guards have continued to patrol the site. These guards have been asked to change their boots between patrols, yet no further equipment has been provided to protect against asbestos exposure. The MoD appears to accept the potential risk of asbestos exposure, in other words, but has not followed a legal obligation to outfit guards correctly.

This is not the first story recently which points to military complacency over asbestos. The use of asbestos in the navy is a known issue, with heavy contamination of ships and dockyards until decontamination in the 1980s and 90s. Until recently, however, most former Royal Navy personnel were unaware of the issue of asbestos in Sea King helicopters, which were only recently retired. The MoD has refused to discuss this issue when prompted, and has not made any apparent effort to contact personnel who may have been exposed to the substance.

Council culture

The heavy use of asbestos on military sites (and subsequent lack of cleanup) is perhaps the most flagrant example of complacency about this deadly substance, but it’s far from the only one. While these MoD facilities are still under the government’s direct control, there’s an equivalent problem with many former government properties: the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of current or former ‘council houses’ – a common form of public housing – which may contain asbestos.

The Department for Communities and Local Government has previously estimated that 90% of publicly-owned dwellings in the UK – of which there are currently 1.59 million – contained some form of asbestos. While this number will have decreased as new properties have been built and old ones demolished, it does not take into account the many thousands of former council houses and flats which have been purchased under ‘right to buy’ schemes.

One recent example of this issue was an apartment owner who received a £146,000 ($178,000) bill for renovating his tower block, including the removal of asbestos. While he owned the apartment outright through a right to buy scheme, the council owned the estate it sat on, and so were compelled to undertake the work. While some councils are working to remove asbestos from properties, such as in the town of Milton Keynes, a search on Google News will bring up multiple articles every month complaining about asbestos in current or former public housing.

This problem is exacerbated by the general lack of care that is often shown towards social housing. Many estates and tower blocks are no longer directly managed by local authorities, and have instead been contracted out to external providers. These providers do not always uphold the highest standards of care, and in many instances have broken the law. The Grenfell Tower disaster is perhaps the most visible example, but more recent (and pertinent) cases include The Gateshead Housing Company’s failure to carry out hundreds of asbestos surveys.

A public problem

There is an argument to suggest that none of us are attuned enough to the risks of asbestos, given that it is still so prevalent around us. Many people do not realize that there is asbestos in their privately-owned homes at the moment, hidden away in roof tiles or old textured ceilings. While it’s certainly true that many of us would benefit from asbestos awareness training to identify these risks, we shouldn’t have to shoulder this ourselves.

The impetus should come from local and federal authorities, in the same way that workplace health & safety is regulated and enforced. Yet while both OSHA and the UK’s Health & Safety Executive do a reasonable job of laying down the law, there are clearly oversights in how this law is applied retroactively. While most forms of asbestos are banned (all forms in the UK), and anyone working with asbestos needs to be trained, there’s a lack of appreciation for asbestos in other settings.

Take the example of an average person deciding their textured ceiling or wall is an eyesore and removing it themselves, kicking up clouds of deadly asbestos-infused dust without even realizing it; or somebody scrapping an old garden shed and taking it to the dump. There’s an awareness of the fact that asbestos was used in millions of public and private properties, yet as long as the risk falls on individuals rather than businesses, there is no sense of obligation to avoid it. There is not even an obligation to inform homebuyers that their new property may contain asbestos, something we’ve seen in numerous cases.

With asbestos-related diseases reaching an all-time high this year, we cannot be complacent about this issue just because asbestos is no longer in use. As a mineral, asbestos has formed over and survived for thousands of years, and may easily be around us for thousands more. Whether through an information campaign, incentivized asbestos awareness training or funding for asbestos surveys and removal, the powers that be need to step up and intervene – before degrading asbestos ruins any more lives.

This post was contributed by Lee Sadd, Operations and Training Director at health & safety consultancy SAMS Ltd.