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Action Mesothelioma Day 2023

Andrew Cooper, Leigh Day associate solicitor in the asbestos claims team, discusses this year’s annual Action Mesothelioma Day in his latest blog, and how asbestos is a continuing threat to public health.

Posted on 07 July 2023

Action Mesothelioma Day (AMD) takes place today, Friday 7 July 2023, when all across the country people will gather to mark a national day of remembrance and contemplation for people who have been impacted by the disease.

My colleagues and I are very pleased to be attending events held by asbestos support groups throughout the UK, including GMAVS, READLEY, MAVS, CAVS, SARAG, DAST, MESSY, LASAG, ASCE, SWASAG, CLASAG and national charity Mesothelioma UK.

This year, ActionMeso, an organisation supported by Leigh Day and other law firms to raise awareness of the dangers of asbestos, are continuing their #GoBlueForMeso campaign, encouraging prominent local landmarks and people’s homes to light up blue on AMD, to raise awareness of the condition. 

The first AMD took place on 27 February 2006, after a motion was signed by over 100 hundred MPs supporting the Mesothelioma Charter, a 15 point plan calling for better care and treatment for patients and for more funding be made available for research.

The charter also recognised that asbestos exposure was an ongoing problem, demanding a safe working environment for employees, and for employers to “Identify all asbestos in their properties and organise its safe removal where practical or necessary when work is being carried out.” 

The best approach to dealing with the asbestos in our public buildings has been the topic of recent parliamentary debate and front page news. On the 17th anniversary of the first AMD, we reflect on the progress which has been made and the challenges which still lie ahead. 

The ongoing problem with asbestos 

Asbestos exposure is not a thing of the past.

Asbestos was used extensively in public buildings and people’s workplaces, including schools, hospitals and offices. We are increasingly being contacted by people diagnosed with mesothelioma who did not work directly with asbestos and who were exposed to asbestos which was disturbed in their working environment. 

Many of our schools still contain asbestos. A 2012 report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Health and Safety stated that more than 75 per cent of Britain’s state schools contain asbestos, much of which is badly maintained. The report highlighted that since 1987 it has been known that everyday activities in schools, such as slamming of doors, can lead to the levels of deadly asbestos fibres released into the air being more than six hundred times greater than background levels, despite the fact that the asbestos panels around the door appeared to be in good condition.  

The report noted that more than 228 school teachers had died of mesothelioma since 1980, with 140 dying in the previous ten years. Calling this a national scandal, the group called for the phased removal of all asbestos from schools. 

The policy of successive governments has been that unless asbestos poses an immediate risk, it should be left and managed in place. The Control of Asbestos Regulations have been in force since 2012. Enforced by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the regulations confer a duty to manage asbestos by keeping an asbestos register and carrying out risk assessments, to ensure asbestos materials are properly inspected to prevent exposure to occupants.  
In 2015, the All-Party Parliamentary Group called for all asbestos to be removed from all public buildings, citing that most of the six million tonnes of asbestos fibres which were imported to Britain still remain, and that it is not realistic to expect these will remain undisturbed indefinitely. They also provided evidence from surveys of schools demonstrating that asbestos materials were not being surveyed and inspected properly. 
In 2022, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee published a report into the HSE’s approach to asbestos management. The committee’s recommendations included: 
  1. A phased removal of all asbestos be removed from public buildings within 40 years.
  2. That a central asbestos register be implemented, describing the location and type of all asbestos in public buildings. 
Mesothelioma UK’s important campaign, Don’t Let The Dust Settle, urges the government to implement these recommendations. You can sign the petition here.
On 19 April this year, MPs debated the issue of asbestos in the workplace.

The Government stated it was not against a national register, but noted the HSE’s position, which is that this would duplicate information and would not necessarily lead to better outcomes. The Government has restated its position that setting a deadline for removal of asbestos would lead to more exposure of asbestos workers, and currently there is no evidence that this can be justified in order to reduce the risk to building users, which they consider is very low.  

Has the government taken action against asbestos? 

Despite the warnings and growing evidence of the dangers of asbestos in public buildings, the UK’s approach has largely remained unchanged. 

The government considers the risk to the public is very low when asbestos is left in place, but this flies in the face of the statistics, which clearly demonstrate the increased risk of mesothelioma in teachers and other professionals such as nurses and doctors. 

The plan to remove asbestos from public buildings only when refurbishment takes place or a building is demolished sets the pace of removal in line with the economy and availability of public funding, which is scarce. No data has been presented in the recent debate to show that there has been a substantial reduction in the amount of asbestos under the current strategy.

The removal of asbestos in schools should be a priority, because a large proportion of the population are, and will be, educated in these buildings.

It is hard to imagine that if the symptoms of mesothelioma developed after four minutes, rather than 40 years, we would allow the current position to continue. 

There have been significant advances in researching and treating asbestos conditions in the last two decades, offering better outcomes to patients and more support for families.  

However, as we look back to the first Action Mesothelioma Day 17 years ago, the words of Ian Lavery MP during the debate on 19 April provide a sobering reflection: 

“We have to get our act together. We have to make sure that we support people who, unfortunately, have lost loved ones because of diseases like this…But listen: if we prevented this and took action in the first place, we would not need to support those people, and we would not have the deaths that we are having.”

As the country with the worst asbestos legacy in the world, now really is the time for action. 
Andrew Cooper
Asbestos and mesothelioma Industrial disease

Andrew Cooper

Andrew Cooper is a senior associate solicitor in the industrial disease team.

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