BBC investigation leads to calls for thorough audit of NHS premises
Potentially-deadly asbestos is present in 90% of British hospitals, worrying new figures reveal.
Of the 211 NHS trusts to respond to a BBC Freedom of Information inquiry, 198 said they ran hospital buildings containing the material, which is known to cause illnesses including cancer.
And, after the figures were revealed, MP Jo Stevens, chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Occupational Health and Safety, called for an audit to discover the true extent of the problem.
Asbestos is a naturally-occurring fibrous mineral and was widely used as a building material between the 1950s-1970s.
It is potentially dangerous when inhaled and may give rise to asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the chest, which causes more than 5,000 deaths in the UK each year.
After the BBC published its findings, NHS Improvement said strict regulations meant asbestos in buildings was registered and safely contained.
While funding cuts are stretching NHS resource, asbestos management should remain a fundamental priority for trusts to mitigate the risk of asbestos-related diseases
A spokesman added: "When building or other work is carried out, experts are brought in to safely dispose of it.
"We will continue to work with trusts to ensure their estates are a safe environment for patients and staff."
But Stevens urged the Government to conduct an audit to ‘ensure every trust knows the extent of asbestos on their premises and has a plan for dealing with it’.
She said: "If it’s there it will, at some point, become dangerous if it's disturbed or if it deteriorates, so I'd like to see long-term plans and long-term strategies in place for its removal from all buildings.
"I appreciate that you have to prioritise what you do and so that's why there should be an audit of buildings so that the dangerous areas are dealt with first as a priority."
The BBC also found that 352 claims were made against health trusts between January 2013 and December 2017 by people who had developed asbestos-related diseases following exposure in NHS buildings.
According to the trusts, those claims resulted in payouts of around £6.8m, though three legal firms told the BBC they had won compensation claims totalling more than £16.4m in the same period.
And the charity, Mesothelioma UK, said it was so concerned about the presence of asbestos in hospitals it was launching a research project into the impact on hospital workers.
"I've lost count of the number of people who have developed mesothelioma as a result of being exposed to asbestos in our hospitals," said the charity’s founder, Liz Darlison.
"I'm not surprised as a lot of our hospitals were built in the second half of the last century when we were at the peak of importing asbestos into this country."
If it’s there it will, at some point, become dangerous if it's disturbed or if it deteriorates, so I'd like to see long-term plans and long-term strategies in place for its removal from all buildings
Common asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) in hospitals include lagging used as thermal insulation on pipes and boilers; sprayed asbestos used for thermal insulation, fire protection, partitioning and ducts; asbestos-insulating boards used for fire protection, thermal insulation, partitioning and ducts; some ceiling and floor tiles; cement roofing and guttering; and textured coatings.
Offering advice to healthcare estates and facilities managers following the revelations; Denis Morgan, technical and training manager for asbestos at SOCOTEC, told BBH: “If undisturbed, the asbestos present is not considered a health hazard as the fibres will remain encapsulated.
“However, refurbishment or maintenance works can all pose a risk of disturbing the asbestos, which is why knowing the location of asbestos containing materials is fundamental to long-term safe management.
“Those responsible for maintenance and repair must understand that they have the legal responsibility to locate and assess the risk posed by asbestos containing materials as well as develop a risk management plan.
“While funding cuts are stretching NHS resource, asbestos management should remain a fundamental priority for trusts to mitigate the risk of asbestos-related diseases.
“With pressure on bed space and funding, hospitals will struggle to justify the pro-active removal of asbestos containing materials, which can be safely managed in situ with the correct processes and procedures.”