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Don't get asbestos complacent, warns expert

21 August 2023

REDUCTION IN deaths from mesothelioma reported in latest HSE figures – no cause for complacency says Tim Turney from environmental monitoring company, Casella.

The latest figures published by the HSE on deaths from Mesothelioma, a cancer caused by past exposure to asbestos, show that 2,265 people died from the disease in 2021.  This is a fall of 302 compared with 2,570 deaths in 2020 and a considerable reduction on the average of 2,520 deaths per year recorded between 2012-2019.

Asbestos-related diseases take decades to develop. Most people with them today will largely have been exposed before the tightening of controls and the use of asbestos was banned in 1999.  The current regulations state that where asbestos is present in buildings it must be managed, maintained in a good condition, and stay undisturbed. If this level of protection cannot be achieved, then asbestos must be removed.

These regulations have led to a significant reduction in exposure and the number of people developing asbestos-related illnesses is predicted to fall as we get further from the 1999 asbestos ban.  Prior to that point, asbestos was used extensively in construction.  

Left alone, the material is not harmful, but once disturbed or disintegrating, it can release asbestos fibres that infiltrate and progressively damage the lungs. The damage results in multiple health defects, such as the lung disease Mesothelioma — a cancer that can take up to 20 years to develop, proving fatal within five years or less.  However, asbestos does not only pose a threat to trade workers, but those they encounter, should invisible yet lethal asbestos fibres stick to their personal protective equipment and tools.    

With extensive asbestos remediation work still needed on more than 100,000 UK buildings, according to a report from the Asbestos Testing and Consultancy (ATaC) Association and the National Organisation of Asbestos Consultants (NORAC), there is no room for complacency. 

Whenever asbestos is found and needs to be removed, it is a legal requirement to use licenced contractors and to ensure that strict regulations and guidance are followed to limit the potential release of dangerous, airborne fibres. The guidance typically includes personal air sampling and/or static air sampling, to ensure that there is no exposure during remediation work or during the cleaning and clearance processes at a removal site.

In the UK, a four-stage clearance process is used, involving a preliminary check of the site condition and job completeness, a thorough visual inspection inside the enclosure or work area, air monitoring and a final assessment of the post-enclosure or work area following dismantling. Licenced contractors may also take air samples before work is undertaken to establish a background level measurement. C. Trained professionals take air samples during work on or near asbestos to confirm that there is no leakage from the enclosure.  Using air sampling pumps with remote methods capabilities to support sampling, such as Bluetooth and a mobile phone app, will help to protect personal exposure safety while gathering the necessary measurements.

Air sampling pumps should be used for at least one hour after ensuring that equipment meets the relevant standard(s) and has the required flow-range capability, for example, at 12 L/min the required 480L sample can be completed in 40 minutes. Modern pumps can do timed or volume-based runs to achieve better result accuracy. However, reading the manufacturer’s handbook thoroughly before using the equipment can ensure correct use and allow for optimal feature use.   

Ensuring air sampling equipment has an accurate flow rate to ensure flow is stable over the measurement will prevent readings from having to be retaken. Additionally, selecting an air sampling pump that has a good Ingress Protection (IP) rating will allow for easier decontamination, a process nearly as important as removing asbestos correctly in the first place.

Stringent cleaning regimes are used to protect workers and their colleagues, family, and friends. All equipment must be thoroughly decontaminated to ensure there is no subsequent exposure or spread of asbestos. Choosing a high flow pump with a smooth body finish, free from small crevices, will allow for safer decontamination and cleaning.

The decline in deaths from asbestos-related cancers in the UK is undoubtedly a positive sign, reflecting the effectiveness of the 1999 ban on asbestos products. However, we must remain vigilant in our efforts to combat this persistent threat.  By learning from the past and adopting a proactive approach, the UK can continue its fight against asbestos-related diseases, protecting workers and others from the devastating impact of this silent killer.

Asbestos monitoring has the power to save lives, but only when carried out correctly. Basic awareness training is not enough. Only competent and qualified professionals can remove asbestos from a building to ensure people are kept safe from this extremely hazardous material.