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Urgent call for a national asbestos database in the UK

Urgent call for a national asbestos database in the UK

In a publication by the RICS Built Environment Journal, there's a pressing call for the establishment of a national asbestos database in the UK—a move that the government has recently declined, citing advice from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). This rejection is raising concerns among experts who argue that without such a database, the true scale and risk of asbestos in buildings across the country will remain inadequately understood.

Asbestos, a hazardous material that was not fully banned in the UK until November 1999, is believed to be present in an alarming number of buildings. According to a review by the Commons Work and Pensions Committee into asbestos management, the HSE estimates that 300,000 non-domestic buildings are affected. However, this figure starkly contrasts with the HSE's own findings in a post-implementation review of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, which suggests more than 1 million small businesses alone could have asbestos within their structures. This discrepancy underscores the potential underestimation of the issue, given the widespread use of asbestos in various building types prior to the 2000 ban.

The implications of such pervasive asbestos presence are dire, with asbestos-related diseases, including mesothelioma, claiming approximately 5,000 lives annually. Yet, the current approach to asbestos management—largely based on leaving the material undisturbed unless absolutely necessary—has been criticised for its potential risks as materials deteriorate over time. This strategy, coupled with the fact that information about asbestos presence is dispersed and unstandardised, hampers effective risk assessment and management, exemplified by a concerning finding that 7% of schools inspected failed to manage asbestos effectively.

The call for a national asbestos database is not without precedent or feasibility. The Asbestos Testing and Consultancy Association (ATaC) and the National Organisation of Asbestos Consultants (NORAC) have shown through preliminary data collection efforts that such a register is possible, albeit with challenges such as ensuring data quality from accredited professionals. This initiative mirrors broader needs for improved data collection, risk assessment standardisation, and proactive asbestos management strategies to mitigate future health risks.

Despite these calls to action, the government's stance, influenced by HSE's caution against potential risks of asbestos removal, highlights a complex balancing act between managing immediate health risks and long-term asbestos exposure. Critics argue that a more proactive approach, supported by a national database, could significantly improve understanding and management of asbestos risks, urging a reevaluation of current policies and practices.

As this debate unfolds, it's clear that the UK's asbestos challenge is not just a matter of policy but a critical public health issue demanding innovative solutions and concerted efforts from all stakeholders. The development of a national asbestos database could mark a significant step forward in addressing the legacy of asbestos use and safeguarding public health for future generations.


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