RICS Draft Guidance Note: Asbestos - legal requirements and best practice for property professionals and clients (4th edition)

RICS Asbestos 4th edition consultation draft

Appendix F: Effects and international attitudes

Regulations and guidance to control exposure to asbestos fibres have been in place for decades, and differing exposure limits have been applied over time. Initially, levels were set using gravimetric analysis, where a volume of air was drawn through a filter medium and the deposited material was weighed. Over time, the sampling methodology has changed and samples are now collected by drawing a known volume of air over a membrane filter and analysing this using microscopy.

Fully understanding the risk of asbestos has been difficult due to the long disease latency period but over time, as it became clear the thresholds imposed have not worked, the acceptable levels of exposure have been reduced. In the UK, after asbestos removal work, a level of fibres in the air of 0.01f/cm3 is achievable and measurable with the technology currently available. As a result, this has become the 'acceptable' level of exposure. In easily quantifiable terms, this equals 10,000 fibres per cubic meter. In mainland Europe, debate is currently taking place as to the acceptability of this level of exposure, as long-term exposure at this level may have the same effects on health as short-term exposure to a high level.

Asbestos health effects and diseases

The physical characteristic of asbestos that renders it hazardous to health is its crystalline structure, which gives it its fibrous nature, splitting into finer and finer fibres that are extremely durable. The fibres are microscopic, often less than 1 micron in diameter and 2 microns long, so are readily carried by air currents and can remain airborne for a considerable period of time.

Inhalation of any form of asbestos has serious health risks. If the fibres enter the body, they can embed themselves in the body tissue and remain intact, unaffected by natural digestion processes and bodily fluids, for many years.

The annual death rate for mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases in Britain is set to peak at around 5,500 to 6,000 around the mid-2020s, when it is expected that the number of deaths will start to decrease (source: Work-related ill health and occupational disease in Great Britain: Asbestos-related disease, HSE).

Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a cancer that affects the lining of the lungs (pleura) and the lining surrounding the lower digestive tract (peritoneum). It is almost exclusively related to asbestos exposure, and is incurable.

Asbestos-related lung cancer

Asbestos-related lung cancer is indistinguishable from lung cancer caused by smoking and other factors. It is estimated that the number of asbestos-related deaths from lung cancer match those from mesothelioma.

Asbestosis

Asbestosis is a serious scarring of the lungs that normally occurs after heavy exposure to asbestos over many years. Like silicosis caused by inhalation of silica dust from cutting concrete and stone, it results in progressive shortness of breath. This condition is very similar to silicosis and causes progressive shortness of breath. In severe cases, it can be fatal.

The World Health Organisation (WHO)

All types of asbestos are classified as Group 1 carcinogens by the WHO. This classification is given to substances that are known to be carcinogenic to humans.

Asbestos-related diseases take between 20 and 50 years to become evident; this makes their treatment challenging, as they often only become evident at a late stage. In March 2014, the WHO updated their policy statement, Elimination of asbestos-related diseases, which echoed the International Labour Organization's Resolution concerning asbestos in calling for a worldwide ban:

'Bearing in mind that there is no evidence for a threshold for the carcinogenic effect of asbestos ... and that increased cancer risks have been observed in populations exposed to very low levels, the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop using all types of asbestos. Continued use of asbestos cement in the construction industry is a particular concern, because the workforce is large, it is difficult to control exposure, and in-place materials have the potential to deteriorate and pose a risk to those carrying out alterations, maintenance and demolition. In its various applications, asbestos can be replaced by some fibre materials and by other products which pose less or no risk to health.'

The WHO estimates that about 125m people are exposed to asbestos in the workplace worldwide. In 2004, asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis from occupational exposure resulted in 107,000 deaths and 1,523,000 disability-adjusted life years.

In addition, several thousand deaths can be attributed to other asbestos-related diseases, as well as to non-occupational exposure to asbestos. The WHO stated that it is:

'committed to working with countries towards the elimination of asbestos-related diseases in the following strategic directions:

  • by recognizing that the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop the use of all types of asbestos;
  • by providing information about solutions for replacing asbestos with safer substitutes and developing economic and technological mechanisms to stimulate its replacement;
  • by taking measures to prevent exposure to asbestos in place and during asbestos removal (abatement);
  • by improving early diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation services for asbestos-related diseases and establishing registries of people with past and/or current exposure to asbestos.'

The EU

The EU first legislated on asbestos in 1983 with Council Directive 83/477/EEC on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to asbestos at work. Subsequent amendments to this were made over the years, and in 2009 these were repealed and replaced with directive 2009/148/EC, which stated:

'Asbestos is a particularly dangerous agent which may cause serious diseases and which is found in a large number of circumstances at work. Many workers are therefore exposed to a potential health risk [...]

Although current scientific knowledge is not such that a level can be established below which risks to health cease to exist, a reduction in exposure to asbestos will nonetheless reduce the risk of developing asbestos-related disease. It is accordingly necessary to provide for the establishment of specific harmonised procedures regarding the protection of workers with respect to asbestos.'

All prospective EU members are required to enact legislation to bring their laws into line with EU law. In 1999, directive 1999/77/EC set the deadline for the prohibition of chrysotile use as 1 January 2005; this was the date by which all member states were required to ban all asbestos use.

In theory, no country can join the EU unless it has agreed to this ban. However, it is reported that several countries have not enacted this directive.

Although the UK withdrew from the EU in January 2020, it is certain that there will continue to be strict UK regulation of asbestos in buildings in order to protect public health. Regulation 4 of The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 deals with the regulation of buildings and is not derived from EU law.

Global ban and continued use of asbestos

Out of approximately 200 countries in the world, only around 60 have banned the use of asbestos. The BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are the biggest users, accounting for 66% of all asbestos used in the world today - and these four countries account for 40% of the world's population.

The following countries have banned the use of all forms of asbestos (the six regulated fibre types) and all general uses of asbestos (in construction, insulation, textiles, etc.). Certain countries have exemptions, usually for specialist seals and gaskets, and in a few countries there is an interim period where asbestos brake pads and linings are permitted.

Algeria

Denmark

Ireland

Monaco

Seychelles

Argentina

Egypt

Israel

Mozambique

Slovakia*

Australia

Estonia

Italy

Netherlands

Slovenia

Austria

Finland

Japan

New Caledonia

South Africa

Bahrain

France

Jordan

New Zealand

Spain

Belgium

Gabon

Korea (South)

Norway

Sweden

Brazil

Germany

Kuwait

Oman

Switzerland

Brunei

Gibraltar

Latvia

Poland

Taiwan

Bulgaria

Greece*

Lithuania*

Portugal*

Turkey

Chile

Honduras

Luxembourg

Qatar

United Kingdom

Croatia

Hungary*

Macedonia

Romania

Uruguay

Cyprus*

Iceland

Malta*

Saudi Arabia

Czech Republic*

Iraq

Mauritius

Serbia

* 1 January 2005 was the final deadline for prohibiting the use of all forms of asbestos across the EU. Of the 27 member states, compliance with this directive has not been verified in these countries (source: International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, April 2018).

Note: the definition of 'asbestos-free' varies in countries outside the UK. Some countries, e.g. China, class less than 10% content as being 'asbestos-free.'