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MPs call for 40-year deadline to remove asbestos from public buildings

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The government should set a 40-year timeline to remove all asbestos from public and commercial buildings, according to MPs on the Work and Pensions Committee.

The MPs expressed concern that the risk to health is likely to increase as buildings are adapted with the move to net zero and old asbestos insulation is disturbed in the process.

A new report from the committee found that asbestos persists as the single greatest cause of work-related fatalities, despite the material being banned more than two decades ago. There were more than 5,000 deaths in 2019, including from cancers such as mesothelioma.

Many of these deaths will relate to exposures from 35 or more years ago. The available evidence indicates that cumulative exposures are much lower now for younger age groups, but more data is needed to understand the current picture.

With asbestos still present in around 300,000 non-domestic buildings and with a likely dramatic increase in disturbance from net-zero retrofitting, the Committee says that reliance on the current asbestos regulations will not be good enough. It concludes that a cross-government and ‘system-wide’ strategy for the long-term removal of asbestos is needed.

The report calls for the Government and Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to back up their stated goal of removing all asbestos by committing to a clear time frame and strategy. The plan should strengthen the evidence based on safe and effective asbestos removal in the first instance before prioritising removal from the highest risk settings, including schools, the Committee said.

It also said that funding for HSE’s inspection and enforcement of the current asbestos regulations had declined in recent years.

Stephen Timms MP, chair of the Committee, said: “Asbestos is one of the great workplace tragedies of modern times and while the extreme exposures of the late twentieth century are now behind us, the risk from asbestos remains real.

“The drive towards retrofitting of buildings to meet net-zero aspirations means the risk of asbestos exposure will only escalate in the coming decades. Falling back on regulations which devolve responsibility to individual building owners and maintenance managers will not be sufficient to protect people’s health.

“Setting a clear deadline of 40 years for the removal of asbestos from non-domestic buildings will help to focus minds. The clock is ticking and the government and HSE must now come up with a strategic plan which builds the evidence on safer removal and prioritises higher risk settings such as schools.

“This is no time for laissez-faire. The government needs to fund the HSE properly to allow it to reverse the decline in enforcement activity seen in the decade before the pandemic and ensure that asbestos, and its removal, is managed safely and effectively.”

The Committee believes that the HSE has also been slow to invest in research into the costs and benefits of removal and also in evaluating options for its safe removal.

HSE issued 60 per cent fewer asbestos enforcement notices annually between 2011/12 and 2018/19.

Last year, an E&T analysis showed that asbestos-related deaths have actually been rising in recent decades.

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