Asbestos eradication proposal for all public and commercial buildings

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27/01/2016

While the use of asbestos as insulation and fire protection has ceased since its carcinogenic properties were discovered in the 1980s, many buildings still contain this dangerous fibre. As a result, the European Parliament has proposed the removal of asbestos from all European public buildings by 2028. Todd Hallam, Chalcroft’s QEHS Director, looks at the proposed eradication programme, and how to safely implement an asbestos management plan.

An estimated 2,000 deaths from lung cancer are attributed to asbestos exposure each year, and while these figures are slowly decreasing, another illness associated with asbestos is sadly on the rise. Mesothelioma, a more specific form of cancer which often originates in the lung lining, can be caused by a much lower exposure to asbestos and is noted as the cause of an increasing number of deaths. The European Parliament is therefore considering introducing a complete removal of asbestos particles in public and commercial buildings to prevent illness and fatalities – policies which countries like Australia and Poland already have in place.

After centuries of use, the asbestos industry was established in 1858 when companies began mining the material specifically for industrial insulation. Indeed, the substance is still mined today in countries such as Russia, Brazil, China and Kazakhstan. In the UK, asbestos was used extensively in construction between the 1950s and 1960s and is actually a group of six substances with the most popularly-used types being chrysotile, amosite (also known as brown asbestos) and crocidolite (blue asbestos). The most common, used in roofing, ceilings, walls and floors of all types of buildings, was chrysotile. Amosite consists of needle-like fibres and was predominantly used in insulating boards, ceiling tiles and pipe insulation. Crocidolite, while it provides the highest heat resistance of all types of asbestos, is also the most dangerous and was mainly used in cement products, insulating coatings and pipework.

The import and use of blue and brown asbestos was banned in 1985, with a complete ban imposed in 1999. However, while its use was prohibited within new buildings, the removal of old asbestos was never legislated for unless disturbed by post-ban construction work – meaning that any building older than 30 years old may well contain asbestos.

Asbestos fibres can lie dormant in the lungs for 15 to 50 years following initial exposure, explaining why deaths are on the rise. Some 80% of people diagnosed with mesothelioma are men, which reflects the demographic of the construction industry throughout the last generation, and in 2012 a total of 2,535 deaths were attributed to this specific type of lung cancer. During 2013, 2,145 new cases of mesothelioma were assessed for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit. Overall, the HSE predicts that by 2050, a staggering 91,000 asbestos-related deaths will have occurred in the UK and, according to the British Lung Foundation, exposure to this substance claims a life every five hours.

The case for the full removal of asbestos boards, fibres and coatings is compelling, even though the proposed deadline for removal seems a long way off. For business landlords planning to refurbish or extend their premises however, the deadline may come around a lot sooner as building work typically uncovers or disturbs asbestos in buildings of more than 30 years old. With Chalcroft’s experience in refurbishing properties as diverse as food manufacturing facilities, clean rooms, temperature-controlled warehouses and commercial premises, it’s a situation we encounter frequently.

Whether there are a small number of asbestos-based panels or fabrics or an entire roof, an asbestos management plan developed in line with Health & Safety Executive (HSE) regulations and guidance should be instantly deployed. Highly-trained site managers and supervisors, working with licenced contractors where required, will be responsible for handling the isolation of the area and the provision of correct respiratory protection equipment (RPE). Following the initial securing of the area, it is vital to undertake sampling and surveys to monitor both the health of individuals who may have been exposed and the air in the surrounding environment. The disposal process must be very carefully managed, from the complete removal of the materials to the transportation to a licensed facility for destruction – as well as the replacement of the asbestos with a safe alternative. To complete the process, documentation and consignment notes must be provided but for conscientious construction contractors, the work doesn’t stop there – on any refurbishment project they must constantly assess structures for the presence of asbestos as part of a robust and ongoing identification process.

While this proposal is in its infancy, the impact of removing asbestos can be severe especially for open-plan food manufacturing facilities where isolation of a small area may prove very difficult and cause a complete halt to production. Ultimately, proactivity in the removal of asbestos rather than waiting for rules to be imposed will be of great benefit to business landlords – allowing the safe removal of this highly dangerous substance to fit around production schedules or planned downtime, and minimising the effect on regular operations.

For advice on the removal of asbestos at your premises, or to find out more about how Chalcroft will manage any asbestos removal as part of your refurbishment project, contact toddhallam@chalcroft.co.uk