The scandal that is: Asbestos
You might think Asbestos is something new, but it has been used for thousands of years. From Egyptian mummification to table cloths, Asbestos has been used throughout time. Even as far back as the Roman Empire, Roman philosopher and naturalist Pliny the Elder noted that slaves who mined asbestos suffered from a sickness of the lungs and died at an early age.
Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral, but it wasn't really until the late 1800's when Asbestos started to be used in manufacturing when problems with it started to show.
At the turn of the century, Asbestos was needed for lagging ships, steam engines and boiler parts. Then the textile industry got in on the act of producing Asbestos products like oven gloves, fire proof clothing and fire blankets etc.
So, where does the scandal come in? Well, it all started with a young girl born in 1891 called Nellie Kershaw. She worked in an Asbestos mill and died at the young age of 29. Her death was the first ever case described in medical literature as pulmonary asbestosis. She wasn't alone, many mill workers and those in the Asbestos textile industry were starting to die.
From that moment on, governments became aware of the link between Asbestos and its health effects. So why didn't they ban it in the early 1900's? Well, you need to recognise that at that time there was a British Empire and guess who owned the majority of Asbestos mines. Britain wasn't about to shoot itself in the foot by stopping production. Also, life in those times was far cheaper. When companies built tunnels and bridges, they expected to lose a number of lives. The same applied in the Asbestos industry. Life was cheap.
Successive governments chose not to bother about the dangers of Asbestos. Let's face it, there were 2 world wars which kept their minds occupied.
Then, after the second world war, Britain was on its knees. It needed cheap building materials and asbestos products fit the bill perfectly. Starting in the 50's and particularly in the 60's and 70's, local authorities built vast estates and tower blocks to meet the housing shortage. From sprayed Asbestos for fire proofing to roofing products and insulation boards, Asbestos of all types was used and often mixed together. Where can you find Asbestos?
Where previously, Asbestos proved to be a health issue in its production and in the manufacturing of Asbestos products, now many builders, electricians, carpenters and plumbers are suffering from its effects. Currently, the HSE claim 4500 people die every year due to breathing in or ingesting Asbestos fibres.
In 1980, Margaret Thatcher decided to let tenants of council owned properties to buy their own properties and also handed swaths of housing over to housing associations to manage. (By 1987, 1,000,000 council houses had been sold bring in substantial funds for the government).
She must have been rubbing her hands together thinking she was glad to get rid of that ticking time bomb. Now, I am not suggesting for one minute that our government thought in this way, but funny how legislation to ban asbestos followed shortly after. In 1985, the UK banned the import and use of both blue (crocidolite) and brown (amosite) asbestos. It wasn't until the year 2000 that all asbestos was banned in the UK.
So between the early 1900's when the first cases of Asbestos related illnesses began to show, to finally banning all types of Asbestos in 2000 - How many governments chose to ignore its dangers and how many people died?
Asbestos is more dangerous than you think!
As I quoted earlier, the HSE estimate around 4500 deaths a year are contributed to Asbestos. The HSE have also estimated that by around 2020, Asbestos deaths will start to decline.
These are the deaths from Mesothelioma only
However, this is the assumption that asbestos when discovered will be removed. But, the reality is that many housing associations and building contractors prefer to encapsulate it as it is a much cheaper option. That basically means, cover it up or hide it so that it isn't dangerous to anyone. Like over-boarding ceilings. But in my view, this is just storing up problems for the future especially if the encapsulation hasn't been recorded properly.
I also question the number of deaths the HSE claim (4500 a year). The reality is, that because it can take 20-30-40 years before asbestos illness takes hold of a person, few people can remember (or prove where they were working with it) 30-40 years ago. When they go to the hospital with chest problems, the first question asked is "Do you smoke"?. Many 1000's of deaths are likely to be put down to smoking rather than asbestos. That figure means there are probably many 1000's more people die from asbestos related illness as they have been misdiagnosed. It would mean that Asbestos is far more dangerous than evidence would suggest. It probably also means that far fewer people die from smoking related diseases than officially reported (but that's a whole other story).
One area that got overlooked in Margaret Thatcher's sell off plans of the 80's, were the 1000's of government owned schools and municipal buildings like museums, libraries, hospitals and police stations. That legacy is currently rearing its ugly head now and yet governments are still happy to ignore the dangers to the public and not find sufficient funds to remove it. Oh, maybe they hope Academies will take that problem away.
Finally, it has been said that Fibreglass is the next Asbestos. Fiberglass emits a synthetic material called styrene, which is a possible carcinogenic according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But here in the UK, guess who helped fund home owners to install fibreglass insulation into their homes? Lets hope that it doesn't take another 100 years for the UK to introduce measures to protect workers and home owners.
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