Exposure to white asbestos is the primary cause of mesothelioma. The UK has one of the highest rates of mesothelioma in the world, a rare, aggressive form of cancer. Unfortunately, the high rates of mesothelioma are due to the fact that the UK only banned it several years after it was prohibited in many other countries.
Since it took a long time for asbestos to be banned in the UK, many people were exposed to it, particularly those working in industries such as construction, roofing, demolition, plastering, plumbing and heating, painting and decorating and shipbuilding. Joiners, electricians, boilermakers, and carpenters also faced a risk of exposure, but to a lesser extent. Since ships would be loaded with asbestos parts and insulation products, those who worked in the shipbuilding industry prior to the 1980s experienced some of the highest exposure to asbestos.
The UK officially banned white asbestos in August 1999, just a month before it was banned in the EU. At the time, white asbestos or chrysotile was the only type of asbestos permitted in the UK since both blue asbestos (crocidolite) and brown asbestos (amosite) were banned in 1985. The Asbestos Prohibitions Regulations 1999 came into force in November 1999, completely banning any importation or manufacture of asbestos products in the UK. It forbade the importation of powder, flake, crude fibre, or waste chrysotile. The new use of any asbestos products including asbestos panels, boards and tiles, and cement, were also prohibited by law. The sale of any second-hand asbestos cement or other building materials containing asbestos was also banned.
However, exposure to asbestos is still a risk in the UK today since any products already containing asbestos that were installed before November 1999 were allowed to remain in place until they reached the end of their service life. As a result, many older buildings in the UK today that were constructed or refurbished before this time may still contain asbestos.
Since asbestos was completely banned in 1999, there have been new asbestos regulations put in place to protect workers. These regulations require that any work carried out on asbestos insulation products, such as removal, should only be carried out by a licenced and trained asbestos professional. Additionally, the new regulations also put maximum exposure limits in place and required that all asbestos is identified and managed safely by a professional. Any employees at risk of asbestos exposure should receive safety training.
White asbestos was the final type of asbestos to be banned in the UK, with the ban coming into effect in August 1999.