More people die each year from breathing in asbestos fibres than in road traffic accidents. And Britain boasts the world’s highest records for asbestos cancers: it is a national shame and a scandal. You might think of asbestos as a legacy issue, but more than 20 years after its use was banned, new research from the TUC shows it’s still very much present in the majority of the buildings we use.
From town halls to theatres, libraries to leisure centres, the TUC revealed how thousands of these buildings contain the dangerous carcinogen. This is in addition to the majority of schools having asbestos present, risking the lungs of kids as well as school staff. There is no safe threshold of exposure to asbestos fibres. Inhalation even of small quantities can lead to incurable cancer decades after exposure.
Most asbestos exposure is work-related. Thousands of lives are cut short due to mesothelioma or other asbestos-related illnesses each year. These diseases take years to develop, so action now is key to prevent future ill health and early death. If Labour is the party of workers, we must prioritise preventing the biggest single workplace killer.
Only two weeks ago, thousands of Labour councillors were elected or re-elected. New councils turned red, new leaders installed. Labour in power locally can now be looking to act on this issue: carry out audits, improve management plans and, working with unions, design a strategy for safe removal of all types of asbestos from the council’s stock of buildings. Asbestos removal should also be factored in as councils devise their retrofitting proposals, schemes to remove dangerous cladding and in any other renovation and refurbishment plans.
Only one council surveyed in this new report had removed all asbestos from its buildings: Chorley. No surprises that it’s a Labour-run council. But even with all the will in the world, Labour councils need investment and backing from the government to carry out this big job. A recent select committee report backed the call by the all-party parliamentary group on occupational safety and health, calling for a new legal duty for asbestos removal in all public buildings. Let’s get behind that demand on government.
The status-quo is for asbestos to be ‘managed’, not removed. We need urgent change, with an unequivocal position for safe removal, in the fastest possible timeframe, because for thousands of working people it’s a matter of life or death.