When was asbestos banned in the UK?

Given how well-known it is today that exposure to asbestos can lead to the development of serious and often fatal health issues, it might seem remarkable in many ways that it took so long for the importation and use of the substance to be banned.

Asbestos first began to be widely used in the UK in the late 19th century, and it went on to be heavily used across various industries, particularly construction.

However, even though scientists were warning of the potential dangers the material posed to health as early as the 1920s and 1930s, its use in the UK did not peak until around the 1970s, and a final ban on asbestos in the UK was only imposed in 1999.

So, what was the journey to this now-notorious material being banned in the UK – and what do you need to know about the legislative and regulatory picture for asbestos in the 2020s?

When was asbestos banned in the UK?

Exactly when did the UK ban asbestos, and why?

The banning of asbestos in the UK effectively occurred in several stages; first, in 1985, a ban was put in place on the use of blue (crocidolite) and brown (amosite) asbestos.

But white (chrysolite) asbestos continued to be actively used into the late 1990s, and it took until November 1999 for a full ban on asbestos in the UK to take effect. This ban rendered it illegal to buy, sell, import, or export any materials that contained asbestos.

So, if warnings about the health risks of contact with asbestos were becoming apparent much earlier in the 20th century, why did it take until the eve of the 21st century for its use in the UK to finally be completely banned?

The reality is that the UK Government largely ignored those health warnings over many years. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that asbestos appeared to have many benefits as a building material, ranging from its affordability and wide availability to its strength and effectiveness as an insulator.

By the 1970s and early 1980s, however, the Government was being forced to sit up and take notice of a growing problem. Many more people up and down the country seemed to be suffering from asbestos-linked diseases such as mesothelioma and asbestosis, with significant numbers of these dying and their conditions putting pressure on hospitals.

The dangers could be ignored for no longer; at last, in 1985, the first real asbestos ban in the UK was implemented. 

Why is asbestos still a problem if it is banned?

The fact that a complete ban was put in place on the use of asbestos in the UK several decades ago now, might lead some observers to conclude that asbestos-related disease must be largely “a thing of the past”. However, this is sadly not the case; even into the 2020s, about 5,000 people a year still die from asbestos-related disease in the UK.

How could this be the case, so long after the imposition of the asbestos bans? This is largely because it can often take many years, even decades, for a given person to develop an asbestos-related disease after their first inhalation or ingestion of the material. So, there are still likely to be instances of asbestos-related disease occurring that have their origins in exposure prior to the ban.  

It is also important to appreciate, however, that hundreds of thousands of buildings across the UK are believed to still contain asbestos. It is not believed that asbestos poses a risk to health in the home if it is left alone. However, in the event of the material being disturbed for any reason – for example, in connection with demolition or refurbishment work – the fibres could be released, which poses a danger of them being inhaled or ingested by someone nearby.

This underlines how crucial it is that those who are responsible for managing certain buildings – whether residential, commercial, or public – always practise the very highest standards of health and safety, as they can ensure by complying with relevant asbestos regulation.

Who can be at risk from asbestos?

With asbestos at its peak having been used by such a broad range of industries in the UK, the people who are most obviously at risk from asbestos would be those who have worked directly or otherwise come into close contact with the material.

Asbestos was especially heavily used in construction, so those who worked in this sector – particularly pre-ban – could be at higher risk. The same can be said for those who worked in the shipbuilding industry prior to the 1980s, given the tendency back then for many ships to be loaded with asbestos parts and asbestos insulation.

Other occupations that could be subject to varying levels of asbestos exposure range from roofers, painters and decorators to electricians, carpenters, and boilermakers – again, largely dependent on whether they would have been at risk of coming into contact with asbestos during their working life.

What are the rules and regulations surrounding asbestos now?

The current rules and regulations surrounding asbestos in the UK are designed to help ensure the material – where it still exists across the country’s buildings – is managed safely and responsibly. Thankfully, we have come a long way from the days when a lackadaisical approach was taken to protecting people from the dangers of asbestos.

An important principle behind current asbestos regulation is that existing asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) on a given site that are in good condition and unlikely to be damaged may be left in place. However, their condition must still be monitored and managed to help prevent disturbance.

Those who are looking to safely manage the potential presence of asbestos at non-domestic (but also some domestic) premises for which they are responsible, will need to pay close attention to the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (CAR 2012).

What to do if you find asbestos  

The fact that asbestos was only fully banned in the UK in 1999, means there is a strong chance of any given building constructed prior to 2000 containing the material.

As we touched on above, the mere fact that asbestos is present within a building does not indicate it is automatically a danger to health. However, if you do encounter material on your premises that you suspect or believe contains asbestos, it is important to know what steps to take to ensure the situation is suitably managed and no one is put at avoidable risk.

Would you appreciate advice on how to respond to suspected asbestos on your site, or information about any of our asbestos services? If so, please reach out to the Oracle Solutions team; we will be pleased to provide support and to present you with a fast and free asbestos quote.