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The Graphic: Asbestos in British homes

Image credit: Dreamstime

Covid-19 lockdown and home refitting plans introduce unique challenges to asbestos-contaminated homes across the UK. A visual analysis calculates where building stock may be affected the most.

As Brits spend time mostly in their own four walls, the risk of asbestos exposure at home grows with a surging appetite for DIY work during lockdown. The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) says that asbestos is only a problem when fibres are released into the air.

However, spending more time at home may increase the risk of exposure, especially as a 2010 study suggests that nearly half of Brits are unaware that asbestos was used as a building material in their homes.

In the UK, HSE says the number of asbestos-related deaths is around 5,000 a year. For comparison, fewer than 2,000 people die in road accidents. In recent years asbestos-related death have surged.

Rise in deaths from asbestos related illnesses

Image credit: HSE, E&T Graphic

The Covid-19 pandemic makes things worse. For people with asbestos-related illnesses like mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and pleural thickening, Covid-19, as a respiratory illness, can cause additional complications for people with existing lung and breathing issues. The National Asbestos Helpline warns sufferers to be extra careful to avoid infection. 

When are death rates estimated to decline? Asbestosis death rates at ages below 65 years have been falling since the 1980s. Annual deaths increased steeply over the last 50 years, largely as a result of asbestos exposure prior to 1980, HSE says. The body estimates numbers will continue at current levels for the rest of the decade and then, will decline. Others pointed out that HSE has previously anticipated earlier falls.

England and Wales housing stock

Image credit: E&T Graphic

Asbestos found its way into British dwellings as early as 1870. The boom years began in the 1960s and 1970s when much of the housing stock was built with asbestos, especially in the form of insulation and other building materials.

Workers at construction sites are often exposed to Asbestos

Work to replace asbestos cement pipe. Workers at building sites are often disproportionally affected by asbestos pollution (Dreamstime)

Image credit: Dreamstime

Jaspal Mundh, health and safety manager at Mott MacDonald, says, regulations require that, at least in the private building sector, “you assume [homes] contain asbestos until you can prove otherwise, definitively”.

London Housing stock

Image credit: E&T Graphic

The only way to do it is to sample it and have it tested in an accredited lab. This makes getting reliable figures difficult and expensive. Surveys alone can cost around £600. The future may hold further surprises.

Survey signs

A sign warning of possible asbestos contamination and danger to health. Experts who conduct surveys within homes say it can be a costly matter (Dreamstime)

Image credit: Dreamstime

The UK Committee for Climate Change advised the refit some 29 million existing homes across the UK to hit climate change goals. Cleaning up the asbestos pollution safely means a grand challenge ahead. 

We are still mining asbestos

An asbestos quarry. Britain prohibited the trade, application and supply of crocidolite and amosite asbestos since the 1980s and banned Chrysotile asbestos in 1999. It imported more asbestos per capita than any other country and has the highest rates of asbestos-related deaths in Europe (Dreamstime).

Image credit: Dreamstime

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