ASBESTOS has a chilling reputation: the hidden killer which takes more than 15 years after initial exposure to its deadly fibres to turn into the first signs of fatal illness.
Use of the two most dangerous forms of asbestos, blue and brown, was banned in the 1980s and only licensed demolition contractors are allowed to be involved in its removal. But now attention has turned to white asbestos, which is believed to be a far more dangerous material than previously thought.
Currently about 3,500 people die each year from asbestos-related disease but the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) warns that this figure could soar to 10,000 during the next 25 years with an increasing number of deaths due to white asbestos.
In the wake of this disturbing prediction, the government has pledged to outlaw white asbestos. Just weeks after Labour took office, environment minister Angela Eagle announced that her department was seeking to ban the import, supply and use of white asbestos in a move that will have major implications for the construction industry.
The Health and Safety Commission is due to give a report on the feasibility of the ban to Ms Eagle before Christmas and a major consultation document will be published this coming spring.
In a recent letter to the Construction Safety Campaign, Ms Eagle wrote: 'The consultation is planned to include a range of proposals for tightening and extending the asbestos regulations. This would lead to proposals to ministers for new or
revised regulations which could take effect before the end of 1998.'
Opponents of white asbestos, such as backbench Labour MP Michael Clapham, want a ban to be introduced as soon as possible to bring the material into line with rules for blue and brown asbestos.
Mr Clapham said: 'There is no threshold level at which working with
asbestos or working with products containing asbestos could be said to be safe. I would hope we would move to ban the import of white asbestos as speedily as possible both for products and raw material.'
He also wants the licensing of contractors working with white asbestos.
'If you don't have licensed contractors then you get cowboys involved and people get exposed to the dangers. We know from American research that white asbestos can induce cancers in mice and rats and in that case it is essential to have a system of registration and safe removal,' he said.
The Asbestos Removal Contractors
Association (ARCA) has also been pressing for demolition work involving white asbestos to be carried out only by
Terry Jago, ARCA's chief executive, believes that asbestos insulation board will be brought into the licensing regulations but he hopes that Labour will also take a tough line on asbestos cement.
Mr Jago said: 'We have been pushing for asbestos cement to be included in licensed contractors' work but so far the HSE has argued strongly against that by saying there are acres and acres of the stuff and that it is a low risk material with a fibre content of only eight per cent.'
Currently asbestos cement, the key ingredient of asbestos corrugated sheet, can even be removed by householders who, like builders, are expected to follow a guidance note produced by the HSE.
Licensing of white asbestos would provide a huge boost to ARCA members' workload but Mr Jago believes that the publicity attached to a ban on white
asbestos could also lead to an increase in work for licensed contractors.
He said: 'When white asbestos is banned it will certainly bring home to people the dangers of the material and where it has been used and that could well result in work for our membership.'
Once the Government has decided to ban the use of white asbestos it will also have a responsibility to ensure that where the material has been used, it is either made safe or removed.
The HSE has been looking at a 'duty to survey', where building owners would be required to survey their buildings for asbestos, leading to a register of the location of asbestos throughout the UK.
Mr Clapham said: 'We couldn't just rip all of the asbestos out because that would cost billions, so we have got to make sure it is safely managed and that where workers are to be exposed in demolition work they are properly equipped to handle the stuff safely.
'Buildings should be audited by the person who owns the property so that asbestos is identified and in any demolition contract that is drawn up that asbestos is written in and therefore dealt with in a safe manner.'
Mr Clapham has seen the effects of white asbestos first hand through his work for the National Union of Mine-workers and believes that even a short exposure to the material can result in crippling or fatal illness.
He is currently dealing with a case of a miner who was exposed to white asbestos for less than a year between 1954 and 1955 and is now suffering from asbestosis.
Mr Clapham said: 'Some of the haulage machinery used underground in the 1950s and '60s used asbestos brake linings and miners were exposed to the dust. Forty years later, some of them are developing asbestosis.'
The argument that white asbestos is a serious danger to health seems overwhelming but the moves to ban the material are facing stiff opposition. Trade in asbestos is big business.
Last year, 66,000 tonnes of raw asbestos and asbestos products, with a total value in excess of £40 million, were imported into this country and the Government is under international pressure to keep up the trade.
This pressure is being exerted at the highest level. At a G7 summit meeting this summer, Tony Blair was collared by the Canadian premier resulting in a Canadian government delegation meeting the HSE in October.
Their pleadings could well have been futile because the government is likely to ban white asbestos with only very few exceptions, such as gaskets in the nuclear industry, before the end of next year.