The history of asbestos use dates back to approximately 4000 BC when ancient Egyptians were believed to have used the material for its heatproof qualities in making candle and lamp wicks. Since that time the use of asbestos has grown significantly as different uses for asbestos have been discovered such as fire proof suits, heat insulation, ironing board covers and even children’s crayons.
But why was such a toxic product so readily available for use on the open market? The answer is simple, asbestos was not believed to be harmful to health until the beginning of the 20th century and it was not until the 1920’s that the dangers of working with asbestos were properly investigated and considered to be real.
Despite initial concerns with the safety of asbestos at the beginning of the 20th century, the use of asbestos as a permitted material persisted in the UK right up until the late 1990’s. Instead of banning the use of asbestos outright, the English government instead put in to place a number of Acts aimed to control the manufacture of asbestos and, where possible, limit harmful exposure to asbestos.
The first Act introduced by the government to control asbestos exposure was the Asbestos Industry Regulations 1931. This Act put into place measures to control exposure to asbestos such as the use of exhaust vents, the use of breathing apparatus for some asbestos workers and the prohibition of employment of young people within the asbestos industry. Of importance though is the fact that these Regulations only applied to the asbestos manufacturing industry, due to the fact that at this time only heavy exposure to asbestos such as that suffered by asbestos industry workers was thought to be dangerous. Other people not working in the asbestos manufacturing process directly were not protected by these Regulations.
The next Act specifically introduced to control the use of asbestos in the workplace was the Asbestos Industry Regulations 1969. These Regulations covered a much wider range of asbestos use in industry as they applied to every process involving asbestos, either in its pure form or as part of the composite of a material where asbestos dust was released. These regulations also applied to a wider range of work places to include factories, building sites, electrical power stations, docks, warehouses and ships and not just specific asbestos manufacturing factories.
The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 1987 was the next Act specifically introduced to tackle the problem of asbestos exposure at work, replacing the 1969 Regulations. These Regulations required employers to protect not only employees from the harmful effects of asbestos exposure but also, as far as was reasonably practicable, any other person who may be affected by the work activity, whether at work or not. This was obviously a great leap forward as a duty was placed on employers to protect those who may not be directly involved in the work process, but still ran the risk of asbestos exposure from the employers undertaking.
The problem with the 1987 Regulations however was that they did not prohibit the use of asbestos within England and Wales completely, only regulated its use. This meant that it was still possible to import asbestos, manufacture asbestos and sell asbestos products within England and Wales up until 1999.
In 1999, The Asbestos (Prohibitions) (Amendment) Regulations were enacted, banning the import or sale of asbestos products within England and Wales, 5 years ahead of the European deadline.
Whilst it is reassuring that the use of asbestos as a product is now prohibited within England and Wales I do worry that the current Regulations will not be enough to protect generations of workers and consumers who were exposed to asbestos up until 1999. In fact, I believe that future generations will also continue to suffer the effects of the wide use of asbestos within England and Wales as many buildings still contain asbestos within their construction which is often disturbed during day-to-day maintenance tasks.
Asbestos diseases have a long latency period meaning exposure to asbestos will not cause any problems until many years later and therefore we expect people to continue to be diagnosed from asbestos related diseases such as pleural thickening, asbestosis, mesothelioma and asbestos related lung cancer for many years, despite the various regulations enacted by the government to protect people.