“Great ignorance about asbestos” remains despite 4,000 deaths a year

June 30, 2009 at 2:17 pm 3 comments

asbestos
by Tony Grew

Barnsley West and Penistone MP Michael Clapham initiated a short adjournment debate on asbestos in social housing yesterday.

“Asbestos causes a range of diseases: asbestosis, pleural plaques, pleural thickening, lung cancer and mesothelioma,” he told the House.

“The latter two diseases are unrelated to dosage, and it is thought that just a small exposure can lead to mesothelioma.

“I want to bring his attention to a study done by the British Lung Foundation in January last year, which set out to explore how wide people’s knowledge of the dangers of asbestos was.

“It commissioned a survey of 399 tradespeople in January 2008, and the respondents were made up of plumbers, builders, carpenters, electricians, joiners and gas fitters of varying ages.

“The results showed that a third of tradespeople admitted to not being well informed about asbestos, and three in 10 incorrectly believed that asbestos had now been removed from all UK buildings.

“There is great ignorance about asbestos. Last year, there were more than 2,000 mesothelioma deaths in the UK, which has led some to suggest that the UK has a mesothelioma epidemic.”

6,000 to 8,000 deaths per year are caused by exposure to asbestos, which was used from the 1930s until the 1980s for building insulation and fire-proofing.

Mr Clapham told MPs:

“It is estimated that asbestos is in 90 per cent. of public sector housing, and the Health and Safety Executive estimates that 1.5 million workplaces contain asbestos.”

Landlords have a legal responsibility to keep an asbestos register.

“We need a two-pronged approach,” Mr Clapham said.

“We need to establish where the asbestos is, using the register, and, having done that, to establish the stage of its erosion. We then need to ensure that advice is provided so that residents can choose either to leave the asbestos in situ or to remove it.”

For the government, Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Jonathan Shaw told the House that he represents the area of a former shipyard in Chatham, “one of the hot spots in the south-east of England” for asbestos.

“The Government are concerned about the human suffering and misery behind the annual death toll, estimated at over 4,000 a year,” he said.

“Sadly, while there is nothing that we can do about those previously exposed, we can certainly do much to prevent further exposures.

“Legislation in the mid-1980s banned the importation of the most dangerous types of asbestos.

“As the carcinogenic effects of asbestos became known, legislation was introduced in the 1990s leading to the total ban on the importation of all types of asbestos and prohibiting the use and sale of products containing asbestos.

“Research by Professor Julian Peto and Health and Safety Executive epidemiologists in 1995 showed that the largest group of workers at risk from asbestos-related disease were those in the maintenance and building-related trades such as carpenters, plumbers and electricians who disturbed building fabric.”

Mr Shaw said the issue of whether and how the presence of asbestos in a home “could be reflected in any new reporting arrangements is a matter for the industry.”

He said that the suggestion that warning symbols be displayed on power tools to alert users to the dangers of working with asbestos is “helpful.”

“It might be that legislation is not the best way to influence the behaviours of workers and do-it-yourself enthusiasts,” he said.

“HSE research has concluded that media campaigns such as the recent hidden killer campaign are the most effective method to influence behaviour.

“The HSE is working in partnership with key stakeholders from the supply chain to increase the availability of all essential protective equipment recommended by the HSE to allow workers to work safely with asbestos.

“The Government agree that maintenance workers, particularly apprentices and young trainees, need to be aware of the risks of asbestos.

“The HSE intends to influence national vocational qualification and other course content in this sector, as it has in other sectors.

“That approach, together with the legal requirements in the asbestos regulations for those already in the workplace, should lead to a much better informed younger work force.

“It is worth noting that independent research confirmed that the HSE’s campaigns targeting the building maintenance work force were effective in reaching and influencing their target audience—maintenance workers.

“The general public also noticed the campaign messages, and the HSE is planning a smaller campaign to maintain the impetus this year.”

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