Asbestos-related diseases kill more people than road accidents in the UK each year, and the number is still growing – deaths are set to peak around 2016.
But in this week’s Scrubbing Up column, Dame Helena Shovelton, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, warns there could be further problems unless people become aware there may still be a risk in their home.
The story of asbestos-related disease is one of the great tragedies in public health in recent times.
Asbestos, a naturally occurring, affordable material with great heat resistant properties was widely used in industry and construction for much of the twentieth century.
It was such an effective material for insulation and fire-resistance it was used everywhere: in cement, to insulate pipes, ceilings and wall cavities.
It was only after decades of use in a wide variety ways that people noted the link between exposure to asbestos fibres and a number of different lung diseases – particularly the aggressive, cruel chest cancer mesothelioma.
Asbestos fibres can lie dormant in people’s lungs for anywhere between 15 and 50 years after initial exposure.
Because symptoms are similar to a number of other conditions, mesothelioma is often spotted too late in the day, and is almost always fatal.
Diagnoses are currently most common amongst those who worked in fields such as heavy industry and shipbuilding during the 1960s and 1970s, before there was a serious appreciation of the danger asbestos posed.
Nevertheless, it took until 1999 for all forms of asbestos to finally be banned in the UK.
Workplace regulations about asbestos are now much more stringent than they once were, leaving the home as the last setting in which people could be exposed.
A particular concern is the lack of awareness and understanding there is about the potential health hazard asbestos poses among those doing DIY.
A recent BLF survey of 2,000 adults showed that only 22% knew that all forms of asbestos were finally banned in the 1990s, while 67% said they could not confidently identify asbestos around the house.
Both figures suggest that, as the initial furore over asbestos and health has subsided, so people ‘s awareness of the danger it presents is fading.
If 2016 is to be the only peak in asbestos-related deaths, rather than the first of many, people need to know about what asbestos is, and where it might find be found, especially in a domestic setting.
We have to avoid the dangerous assumption that asbestos is a health issue of the past that only affected people who worked in certain professions.
Millions of homes across the UK were built in the era when asbestos was a widely used material, and as long as people are still living and working in these buildings asbestos, could, if disturbed, be a major health hazard.
At the same time, it is important not to scare people; if asbestos is in good condition, and doesn’t have to be removed, then it is best left alone.
Once asbestos fibres are inhaled, it is impossible to tell who may ultimately suffer ill health, and when this might occur.
This means that raising awareness among the general public about asbestos as a potential hazard in the home is absolutely crucial, if we are to avoid further fatalities as a result of people undertaking DIY without knowing all the facts about asbestos.