How the UK is fighting the global asbestos trade


The UK has had asbestos banned for nearly 20 years, yet headlines spotlighting harmful and unwarranted exposure continue to flood the news year after year. While issuing a ban has been a critical milestone, the true problem lies with fibres that still exist in British structures and those nations who continue to manufacture and trade asbestos.

Currently, 90% of asbestos production comes from Kazakhstan, Brazil, Russia, and China and, unfortunately, production will negatively impact the rest of the population on a global scale for years to come.

In honour of World Cancer Day this month, the Mesothelioma and Asbestos Awareness Center (MAA Center) wishes to educate readers on how asbestos can slip through the cracks of public policy and how the U.K. plans to combat exposure from outside sources moving forward.

Uncovering the Truth

The first study focused on asbestos exposure and cancer was conducted in the 1950s, where researchers studied its effects on a group of British asbestos textile workers. They soon learned that these employees faced an abnormal amount of lung cancer cases, confirming their initial suspicions. This was just the tip of the iceberg, motivating researchers around the world to look into harmful avenues of occupational and environmental exposure.

Britain has had a notorious record of mesothelioma cases, a devastating diagnosis that may result in legal compensation for those wrongfully exposed. This is largely a result of using asbestos throughout the industrial industry, exposing workers involved with construction, manufacturing and shipbuilding. Although this mineral is widely thought to be an issue of the past, the facts have been more than enough to inspire activists to spread the word and educate the public on what consequences lie beneath the use of asbestos.

For example, the National Education Union reported over 200 teachers have perished from mesothelioma since 2001. In response to this startling discovery, the Department for Education (DfE) asked all English schools to disclose the degree of asbestos within their structures by March 30, 2018. The response rate was so poor that the deadline was extended twice, ultimately ending the evaluation in July 2018.

Currently, 23% of schools have failed to respond, forcing the DfE to extend the deadline yet again until February 15 of this year.

General Secretary of the National Union, Kevin Courtney, addressed the matter stating: “Failure to provide the DfE with information about management of asbestos in schools is putting lives at risk. These delays show that academy trusts and local authorities who bear overall responsibility for health and safety in schools are not facing up to their legal responsibilities.”

Obstacles for the UK

The official ban on asbestos has been able to slowly mitigate the problem, however, the impending decision surrounding the UK leaving the European Union (EU) will directly affect asbestos regulation. In light of the UK debating the Brexit trade deal, SNP chair of the International Trade Committee, Angus MacNeil, expressed concern to the public over the US importing products that may fail to meet the EU’s standards.

In turn, activists are demanding a deal that promises a reliable environmental watchdog to replace protection currently provided under the EU. Campaigners are ultimately fighting for the right to fine or take the government to court for breaking environmental health laws, thus sacrificing public health for financial gain. With such a major decision on the horizon, health and environmental advocates across the UK have come together to stress the importance of upholding the EU’s high standards surrounding public and environmental health.

The Director of Policy at the British Lung Foundation has even contributed to advocacy efforts, stating: “This devastating disease is preventable, and the dangers of asbestos are well known. We should do everything we can to limit exposure to this toxic substance.”

An MAA Center spokesman concluded: “While this decision is largely out of the public’s hands, it’s important for to spread the word in order to reduce the amount of people exposed to not only asbestos, but any carcinogen being manufactured and sold to the public today.

“The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that asbestos is still responsible for nearly 90,000 deaths annually, a statistic that we can all play a part in reducing in the future.”