Asbestos: The Hidden Health Hazard of 19th Century

DateNov 29, 2015
AuthorClelia Chelmi

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral made up of many small fibres. There are three main types of asbestos – white asbestos (chrysotile), brown asbestos (amosite) and blue asbestos (crocidolite).


Asbestos is most commonly found in industrial or residential buildings constructed before 1985. Many homes built before the mid-1980s contain asbestos in flooring/ceiling tiles, roof shingles & flashing, siding, insulation, pipe cement, pipe lagging, insulation around boilers, window panelling, cement sheds and garage wall panels.1

Asbestos is inexpensive and easy to use; its ability to resist high temperatures is what made it so useful and popular. Asbestos is a good thermal and electrical insulator; its fibre gives protection against chemicals, salt water, corrosion, cold, noise, energy loss, frost and vermin.2 All these positive features helped asbestos to become one of the primary building materials in the 20th century, when it was added to a wide variety of products. During this time an estimated 6 million tonnes were imported into the UK.

Owing to the many advantages of the substance, asbestos was hailed as a 'wonder material' for a long time. However, health concerns were beginning to be raised and escalated in severity during the last two decades of the twentieth century, the 'wonder material' was noted to be hazardous to health and soon asbestos trade and use became banned or heavily restricted in the UK.2

By c.1985, blue and brown asbestos stopped being imported into the UK and the importation, supply and use of white asbestos was also banned in 1999. Any pre-2000 building could contain this potentially hazardous substance as the extensive use of asbestos materials for more than one hundred years has left many thousands of tonnes of asbestos within buildings.1, 3

Health risks from asbestos

When asbestos materials in buildings start to deteriorate or become damaged, fibres may be released into the air. These can be breathed deep into the lung, causing long-term health problems and fatal respiratory diseases. These include pleural effusion; pleural plaques; asbestosis of the lungs; lung cancer; and mesothelioma, a cancer of the inner lining of the chest wall or abdominal cavity. Asbestos related diseases are currently responsible for up to 4,000 deaths a year in the UK. 1

According to Waldman and Williams (2009) 3, there is a mesothelioma epidemic in the UK, and that Britain has the highest rates of it in the world. Between c.2015 and 2016, it is expected that the average number of asbestos related deaths will increase to around 5,000 deaths annually.

Mesothelioma often takes between 40 and 50 years to present symptoms after the first exposure to asbestos. There is currently no known cure. Victims can make compensation claims against the employer for whom they were working at the time they were exposed to asbestos. However, over 300 people every year are struggling to find a relevant party to sue for damages, because companies have since become insolvent or insurance records have gone missing.

In January 2014 the Government passed the Mesothelioma Act 2014 to establish the Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme (DMPS). People who have contracted mesothelioma after working with asbestos and cannot find an employer or insurer to claim from can receive £123,000 as part of the new compensation scheme, which started in April 2014. The first payments were made in July that year. The £380 million compensation package has been funded by insurance companies and will pay in excess of 800 eligible people in 2014 and 300 every year after that, until 2024. Sufferers, or their dependents, will receive substantially higher payments than the statutory schemes currently operated by government. 10, 11, 12

A typical example

The remnants of asbestos in buildings across the UK can cause health hazards if not handled in the correct manner. Blue asbestos found in an underground chamber at the Broomgrove power station, Hastings is a typical example. The site was left in a dangerous state after fire ripped through it in May, showering blue asbestos fragments over the neighbouring Farley Bank and Broomgrove housing estates. In 2001, Hastings Borough Council bought the former power station after its owners failed to clean up the site. Interviews and discussions with the Council revealed that the local authority made this decision with the intention to highlight that it is good practice for any organisation to handle and seek to learn lessons from such serious incidents. 1, 3

The Council submitted plans to build houses, offices and shops on the site. By 2013, Hastings Borough Council had undertaken site clearance, asbestos removal, demolition of the building and remediation. Its professional removal cost the council about £120,000. 4, 5

Asbestos survey and the 'duty to manage' asbestos

When planning to sell or let out a commercial property, the site owner is required to produce certain documents as part of the due diligence process. Under The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (Regulation 4), there is a statutory obligation toward the owners, occupiers and those who have a repair obligation for non-domestic and residential premises with any shared or communal areas to ensure that those premises have been properly surveyed for the presence of asbestos and such report will as necessary include a management plan for that property. The principle for Regulation 4 is to ensure that employees and others using the property are safeguarded from the possibility of contamination and associated health risks from asbestos or asbestos containing materials. 5, 6

If you suspect that your property contains asbestos then it is often best to leave potential asbestos materials where they are, particularly if they are in good condition. It would also be prudent to seek advice from your local authority.

Further advice and information on asbestos is available from several sources. If you are concerned about your own health or the health of family members and think that you or they have been exposed to asbestos, contact your GP or health board.



1. Health and Safety Executive, 2004. Working with Asbestos in Buildings [pdf]. Available at: [Accessed 8 February 2015].

2. Unknown, 2013. What exactly is asbestos and why was it used? [online]. Available at: [Accessed 31 March 2015]

3. Linda W. and Heather W., 2009. As Safe as Houses? Dealing with Asbestos in Social Housing [pdf]. Available at: [Accessed 15 February 2015].

4. Unknown, 2001. Homes plan for power station site. Argus, [online] 16 January. Available at: [Accessed 15 February 2015].

5. Unknown, 2001. Deadly blue asbestos unearthed at ex-power station. The Observer, [online] 20 September. Available at: [Accessed 15 February 2015].

6. Clifton Ingram LLP, 2012. Commercial Property-For sellers and landlords [pdf]. Available at: [Accessed 15 February 2015].

7. Health and Safety Executive, 2008. Frequently Asked Questions. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 14 February 2015].

8. Kent Surveys, 2015. Asbestos in Houses. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 14 February 2015].

9. Dartford Borough Council, 2015. What to do if you have asbestos. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 14 February 2015].

10. Department for Work and Pensions, 2014. Asbestos victims to get £123,000 in compensation. [press release] 6 March 2014. Available at: [Accessed 15 March 2015].

11. Consumer UK, 2014. Asbestos victims can now get £123,000 in compensation. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 15 February 2015].

12. Association of British Insureres, 2013. Mesothelioma and asbestos. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 8 February 2015].

13. Hasting Borough Council, 2011. Broomgrove Power Station-Investigation [pdf]. Available at: [Accessed 1 April 2015].