The UK government has rejected a petition signed by over 10,000 individuals calling for the eradication of asbestos within the next 40 years and the establishment of a central asbestos register. Asbestos remains the leading cause of work-related fatalities in the UK. The petition emphasized the heightened risks in schools and hospitals, locations considered most vulnerable to asbestos exposure. The BBC reported the news here.
In response, the government stated that conclusive evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of these measures in enhancing health outcomes is necessary. Despite the ban on asbestos over two decades ago, it remains the single largest contributor to work-related deaths in the country. The Work and Pensions Committee, following an inquiry in 2022 into asbestos management, urged the government to adopt a strategy for asbestos removal from public and commercial buildings within a 40-year timeframe. The Committee’s report underscored the urgency, noting the presence of asbestos in approximately 300,000 non-domestic buildings and potential disturbances from net-zero retrofitting projects.
The government acknowledged the concerns about asbestos in buildings, pledging ongoing consideration of improvements to the current system to minimize asbestos exposure risks. It maintains that the UK’s strategy for managing asbestos, under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, is robust and evidence-based.
However, the government also highlighted the hazards associated with asbestos removal, arguing that such activities could release asbestos fibres, thereby elevating the risk of exposure. The stance is that proactive asbestos removal from buildings would only be endorsed if evidence substantiates that the increased exposure risk to workers is outweighed by reduced risks to building occupants. As of now, such evidence is reportedly absent.
Liz Darlison, Chief Executive of Mesothelioma UK, a national asbestos-related charity, criticized the government’s response. She pointed out the widespread support for governmental action against asbestos, a substance still responsible for thousands of annual deaths in the UK. Darlison called for immediate government action, noting the cross-party backing for a national asbestos register and phased removal plan.
The Work and Pensions Committee criticized the government’s approach as short-sighted, stressing that buildings containing asbestos, even if currently in good condition, will eventually deteriorate. The committee argued that a policy of waiting for asbestos-containing materials to degrade before removal is unsustainable. They advocated for a central register to better understand compliance levels and facilitate more effective, risk-based enforcement.
The petition draws attention to the grim reality that there is no cure for mesothelioma, a cancer linked to asbestos, with up to 2,700 new cases diagnosed annually in the UK. The Health and Safety Executive, an independent, evidence-based regulator, has committed to reviewing and considering new evidence that could enhance health outcomes related to asbestos.