Managing asbestos eradication

The European Parliament has proposed the removal of asbestos from all European public buildings by 2028. Todd Hallam, Chalcroft’s QEHS Director, looks at how the pharma industry can safely implement an asbestos management plan

An estimated 2,000 deaths from lung cancer are attributed to asbestos exposure each year, and while these figures are slowly decreasing, another illness associated with asbestos is sadly on the rise. Mesothelioma, a more specific form of cancer that often originates in the lung lining, can be caused by a much lower exposure to asbestos and is the cause of an increasing number of deaths. The European Parliament is therefore considering introducing a complete removal of asbestos particles in public and commercial buildings to prevent illness and fatalities – policies which are already in place in Australia and Poland.

After centuries of use, the asbestos industry was established in 1858 when companies began mining the material specifically for industrial insulation. Indeed, the substance is still mined today in countries such as Russia, Brazil, China and Kazakhstan.

In the UK, asbestos was used extensively in construction in the 1950s and 1960s; it is actually a group of six substances with the most popularly-used types being chrysotile, amosite (also known as brown asbestos) and crocidolite (blue asbestos). The most common, used in roofing, ceilings, walls and floors of all types of buildings, was chrysotile. Amosite consists of needle-like fibres and was predominantly used in insulating boards, ceiling tiles and pipe insulation. Crocidolite, while it provides the highest heat resistance of all types of asbestos, is also the most dangerous and was mainly used in cement products, insulating coatings and pipework.

Any building older than 30 years, including cleanrooms and pharma facilities, may contain asbestos

The import and use of blue and brown asbestos was banned in 1985, with a complete ban imposed in 1999. However, while its use was prohibited within new buildings, the removal of old asbestos was never legislated for unless disturbed by post-ban construction work – meaning that any building older than 30 years, including cleanrooms and pharma facilities, may contain asbestos.

Asbestos fibres can lie dormant in the lungs for 15–50 years following initial exposure, explaining why deaths are on the rise. Some 80% of people diagnosed with mesothelioma are men, which reflects the demographic of the construction industry throughout the last generation, and in 2012 a total of 2,535 deaths were attributed to this specific type of lung cancer. During 2013, 2,145 new cases of mesothelioma were assessed for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit. Overall, the HSE predicts that by 2050, a staggering 91,000 asbestos-related deaths will have occurred in the UK and, according to the British Lung Foundation, exposure to this substance claims a life every five hours.

The disposal process for asbestos must be very carefully managed

The case for the full removal of asbestos boards, fibres and coatings is compelling, even though the proposed deadline for removal seems a long way off. For business landlords planning to refurbish or extend their premises, however, the deadline may come around a lot sooner as building work typically uncovers or disturbs asbestos in buildings more than 30 years old.

With experience in refurbishing properties as diverse as food manufacturing facilities, cleanrooms, temperature-controlled warehouses and commercial premises, it is a situation that Chalcroft encounters frequently.

Whether there are a small number of asbestos-based panels or fabrics or an entire roof, an asbestos management plan developed in line with Health & Safety Executive (HSE) regulations and guidance should be instantly deployed. Highly trained site managers and supervisors, working with licensed contractors where required, will be responsible for handling the isolation of the area and the provision of correct respiratory protection equipment (RPE).

On any refurbishment project contractors must constantly assess structures for the presence of asbestos as part of a robust and ongoing identification process

Following the initial securing of the area, it is vital to undertake sampling and surveys to monitor both the health of individuals who may have been exposed and the air in the surrounding environment. The disposal process must be very carefully managed, from the complete removal of the materials to the transportation to a licensed facility for destruction – as well as the replacement of the asbestos with a safe alternative.

To complete the process, documentation and consignment notes must be provided, but for conscientious construction contractors, the work doesn’t stop there – on any refurbishment project they must constantly assess structures for the presence of asbestos as part of a robust and ongoing identification process.

While this proposal is in its infancy, the impact of removing asbestos can be severe, especially for open-plan pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities where isolation of a small area may prove very difficult and bring production to a complete halt. Ultimately, proactivity in the removal of asbestos rather than waiting for rules to be imposed will be of great benefit to business landlords – allowing the safe removal of this highly dangerous substance to fit around production schedules or planned downtime, and minimising the effect on regular operations.

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