Asbestos deaths set to hit record levels

Asbestos-related deaths are expected to hit a record high in the next few years as the legacy of decades of ignorance about the cancer- causing building material hits home.

And safety experts have warned the danger will remain high for another 10 to 15 years, with asbestos finds rising 80% in recent years as the recovering economy sees an increase in building renovations and refurbishments.

Notifications to the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) — which are mandatory when asbestos finds exceed a certain limit in a building about to undergo demolition or renovation works — increased from 164 in 2010 to 290 up to the middle of December this year.

That is the highest since the mid-2000s when a combination of the construction boom and the state-sponsored scheme to remove asbestos from schools and other public buildings saw figures rise.

Darren Arkins, a senior inspector with the HSA, said that the vast majority of notifications were coming from the private sector and were expected to rise over the coming years.

He said that there was a constant need to educate new additions to the construction workforce about the dangers.

“The difficulty that you find now is that a lot of construction workers would have been used to new build during the boom period.

“They’ve now come away from that in the last number of years into refurbishment and a lot of these guys would never have seen or come across asbestos.

“That’s an area of concern for us because we’ve seen scenarios where stuff is uncovered during a job and the younger construction workers wouldn’t necessarily pick up on it,” said Mr Arkins.

Recent high-profile discoveries of asbestos have included:

  • Leinster House, where major refurbishment works are under way;
  • A warehouse in Arklow, Co Wicklow, where a roof fire lead to local people being warned to stay indoors;
  • A quarry, also in Co Wicklow, where blasting exposed asbestos-containing rock later dispatched to building sites for use in paths and driveways.

However, Mr Arkins said small projects also presented serious risks.

“The residential side is a key concern for us. We have to up the level of awareness with homeowners,” he said.

While new construction regulations require homeowners to appoint a project supervisor for health and safety when carrying out works, which would include checking for asbestos, Mr Arkins said: “The residential sector is very hard to monitor.”

Deaths from asbestosis, a fast-developing disease caused by exposure to high doses of asbestos, are exceptionally rare in Ireland but cases of pleural mesothelioma, a cancer of the lung linings caused almost exclusively by inhaling tiny amounts of asbestos fibres, often decades earlier, are on the rise.

The National Cancer Registry recorded 20 cases in 2005 but that rose to 34 in 2014 and the registry expects it to leap to 68 cases per year by 2020 as workers exposed to asbestos up to the 1980s when its use ceased, finally begin showing symptoms.

There is no cure for mesothelioma which usually kills within a few years of diagnosis.

According to the HSA, up to 50% of commercial buildings inspected have no up-to-date safety survey carried out on them, with owners often waiting until a major renovation job is due before checking for asbestos, with the result that it can be exposed without warning during minor works.

Aside from lack of appreciation about the dangers of asbestos, the cost of removal and disposal is believed to be a major deterrent to building owners being more pro- active.

Ireland has no waste disposal facility for asbestos and the material must be shipped abroad, mainly to Germany, at a cost of €400 to €500 per tonne.

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