Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Asbestos in the News - Again

Regrettably, asbestos is in the news. I've been keeping an eye out for stories on what was once dubbed the 'miracle mineral' over the past few days. There have been plenty.

To start in the UK, an asbestos clean-up is underway at Dale Farm, the plot of land on Oak Lane in Crays Hill, Essex which was, until late in 2011, the site of an illegal encampment of travellers. Asbestos debris came from roofing sheets on an industrial building at the site, which was damaged by fire last year. Basildon Council has now retained contractors to handle what is expected to be a week-long operation.

Hospital Trust Fined

Belfast Crown Court was the centre of an asbestos story last week. There, a representative of the Belfast Trust pleaded guilty to charges of failing to ensure the safety of staff at Belfast City Hospital in an incident linked to asbestos. The Trust also admitted failing to tell sub-contractors about the presence of asbestos before they started work at the hospital last January, and to failing to manage the risk.

In Wales, an industrial property owner was fined by Caerphilly Magistrates' Court for exposing untrained workers to asbestos at a building in Newport, while the Herts and Essex Observer this week reported on an asbestos alert at Barclays Bank in Sawbridgeworth. Fortunately, it proved to be a false alarm.

Also of some cheer, albeit again arising from highly regrettable circumstances, was the award of £160,000 compensation to pensioner Eli Richards, who worked for bathroom appliance manufacturers Armitage Shanks for 17 years from 1979. Mr Richards was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a form of incurable lung lining cancer, in December 2011. A fit and healthy non-smoker and sportsman all his life, Mr Richards worked in conditions where warnings about asbestos dangers were conspicuously absent. Protection was lacking, too. At least Armitage Shanks had the good grace not to dispute the claim.

Asbestos around the Globe

So much for the UK. What about the rest of the world? Well, a number of stories demonstrate the global nature of the problem of asbestos and the absolute necessity of doing everything to protect people - and particularly children - from its dangers.

In Uganda, the Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee of MPs called upon the government to replace all asbestos roofing from educational establishments which are still prevalent in technical schools, colleges and universities. One MP told the story of a staff member at the Principal Uganda Technical College who had died after using water harvested off an asbestos roof.

In India, the country's Competition Commission is probing alleged cartel activity in the market for asbestos cement sheets, still mainly used in rural areas for low cost houses and warehouses. Further east, in Australia a class action against Carlton and United Breweries looks set to begin. It won't be the first asbestos-related claim the brewery has faced: it has settled six before trial in the past decade. This time, 20 former workers have contacted a law firm with a view to initiating proceedings for exposure to asbestos in the 1950s and 60s.

Looking west across the Atlantic, in the US six Arizona school districts have been fined for 'numerous violations' of the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

WHO lays down the law

Thankfully, a Joint Statement, released on February 19, 2013, by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) didn't pull any punches. It boldly stated that all forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans and that the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop the use of all forms of asbestos.

There was also positive news closer to home. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is attempting to raise the awareness of young workers, who they believe still do not understand the huge dangers posed by asbestos.  The HSE points out that around 4,000 people die every year in Great Britain because of asbestos-related diseases. It believes that 1.8 million tradespeople are still at risk of exposure to the material.

The above isn't an exhaustive summary of recent asbestos stories. I'm sure I've missed a few. There may be other stories of relative good cheer, with companies at least promptly admitting liability and settling claims, rather than putting people who are victims through the stress and anxiety of the legal process. There will be other stories of more tragic import. But most worryingly of all, there will be tales of the harm and woe caused by asbestos that we will never know about.

So perhaps, in a way, it's a good thing that all the above are 'out there' and known about. At least such stories mean that we will keep asbestos in the forefront of our minds, until we have at last dealt with it satisfactorily and made sure that we protect our children from its terrible capability for damage.

For an insightful take on asbestos issues, Cenric Clement-Evans blogs here.

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