Asbestos 'will kill 10,000 a year'

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About 10,000 people a year will die from asbestos-related cancers by the early years of next century, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) warned yesterday, and thousands of young construction workers may get fatal exposures now unless the hazards of asbestos in existing buildings are controlled.

Nothing can be done to save the 10,000 who are doomed to die each year, because they have already received a fatal exposure to asbestos fibres. But the HSE yesterday launched a campaign to prevent fresh recruits to the construction industry from joining the death roll.

Plumbers, gas-fitters, carpenters, electricians and other building maintenance workers are more at risk of asbestos-related diseases than those who actually worked in asbestos production plants, Gary Burdett, an HSE scientist, warned yesterday. They are at risk every time they pull away asbestos- impregnated insulating material around pipes or drill through ceiling tiles, which may contain one of the more dangerous forms, brown asbestos.

The HSE's laboratory has developed and patented a lapel-badge asbestos detector to monitor workers' exposure, he said. The passive sampler uses a piece of charged plastic to attract dust for analysis: it is easy to wear and costs a couple of pounds to make, whereas the EC-approved pumped air sampler with replaceable filter, currently in use, costs more than pounds 220 and is heavy and intrusive to wear.

Dr Burdett warned that "most asbestos was imported into Britain during the 1960s and 1970s, installed in buildings and is still there. So we have to take precautions now."

The HSE has been monitoring death rates from mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lung characteristically associated with exposure to asbestos fibres. It found that over a 20-year period fewer than 1 per cent of the deaths were among workers in asbestos production factories.

Workers in the construction industry were the largest affected group even though "we expected them to get a much lower exposure than in the production industry", he said. But few studies of asbestos exposures of building workers have been carried out, Dr Burdett said. The HSE hopes its new passive dust sampler will change all this.

New methods of "wet stripping", cutting dust levels mean "we can control exposures and achieve a 100-fold reduction in potential risk", Dr Burdett said.