Selfridges has been forced to close the world-famous window display in its flagship London department store for a month after the discovery of asbestos, The Independent has learnt.
The company stressed yesterday that it had taken steps to ensure that the hazardous material – found in the five main windows at the front of its Oxford Street store – was dealt with safely and that there was no risk to public health. The store was not shut while the asbestos panels were removed.
If disturbed, for example by being drilled into or broken, asbestos can release fibres that can cause an incurable, terminal cancer. More than 4,000 people a year die from diseases related to asbestos – more than the annual death toll on the UK's roads.
After The Independent contacted the store, Selfridges' communications director, Christine Watts, said the asbestos panelling was discovered about three weeks ago by experts who are currently carrying out a full survey of the building. "It was found at the top of the window frames of five out of the 26 windows. They were sealed immediately and the HSE [Health and Safety Executive] was informed. Everything was done according to HSE guidelines, with approved contractors and so on," she said.
The asbestos panels were removed last week, while the store remained open. "The windows were sealed up straight away," Ms Watts said. "The removal has been completed and now the next stage is obviously to rebuild the window frames. It's an old building and we always check for asbestos whenever we do a refurbishment. On the occasions that it's found, it is dealt with absolutely in line with HSE requirements."
She declined to elaborate on the ongoing building survey: "I cannot tell you whether it may or may not be found in the future. What I can tell you is we are going beyond what's required by doing this full and intrusive survey of the entire building. This is a business behaving with absolute propriety and with every care for people who shop and work at Selfridges."
The survey should be finished by the end of November. Ms Watts said the panelling was made from brown asbestos, also known as amosite, and most commonly used in thermal insulation. She said the new window displays would not be unveiled until 30 October. "Normally a changeover is a week, this will have been about four weeks," she added.
Gordon Selfridge, the founder of the store, which was built in 1909, is credited with turning the window display into an art form. Notable displays have featured 8,000 bath sponges, celebrations of the Queen's Coronation in 1953 and the peace treaty which ended the First World War.
The news comes as the HSE prepares to launch a campaign on Wednesday to alert tradesmen to the potential dangers of asbestos. Described as one of "the most lethal dangers in the workplace", it was widely used as insulation throughout much of the last century and any building built or refurbished before 2000 could contain it.
The campaign, called "Asbestos – Hidden Killer", will be fronted by the former England footballer Ian Wright, who used to be a plasterer.
"The people who are most at risk are plumbers, electricians and joiners who are working in environments where the asbestos isn't being managed," said a spokeswoman for the HSE.
"It is in over 500,000 buildings in the UK; there is asbestos in Buckingham Palace, in the Houses of Parliament, everywhere. The thing to know about asbestos is if it is in situ and it is undisturbed, it is absolutely fine. It only becomes a problem when it is drilled into, for instance. That releases the fibres and when you breathe that in, that's when it becomes dangerous."
The spokeswoman said property owners had a duty to inform workers if they knew it was present. Asbestos removal must be carried out by a registered contractor. Experts say that businesses and workmen have not taken the dangers sufficiently seriously, and call for tougher regulations and higher fines for those breaching them.
Robin Howie, an occupational hygienist who specialises in asbestos, said: "We have never got the message through. I was involved in a case about 12 years ago with a very large clothes store which was taking down ceiling tiles containing brown asbestos over goods that were for sale. There is a significant release from tiles when you do that job and there were sweaters underneath."
Anyone who bought one of those sweaters could have been exposed to the potentially lethal fibres, Mr Howie said. He advises that work involving disturbing asbestos should, in many cases, be carried out inside an enclosure ventilated by a filtered fan.
Asbestos exposure can lead to mesothelioma, which affects the lining of the lungs, heart or gut. The disease can lie dormant for between 10 and 80 years. However, death comes quickly after diagnosis.
The 'miracle mineral' that can be deadly
There are three main types of asbestos, a naturally occurring substance known to the ancient Greeks as "the miracle mineral" because it was pliable and able to resist heat.
Asbestos is a threat to health when disturbed; if inhaled, small fibres can cause lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma. Blue, the most dangerous, was used to insulate pipes until the early 1960s, and banned in 1969. Its replacement, brown, was used into the mid-1970s, though not actually banned until 1985, when controls were also brought in on white asbestos, considered the least dangerous of the three.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says anyone working with asbestos should have proper training. A respirator should be worn, materials should be kept damp and a special vacuum cleaner used to clean up dust. Disposable overalls and boots without laces should be worn, and hand tools, not power tools, used to minimise dust.
Workers must not smoke, eat or drink in the area, and are advised to "decontaminate yourself after finishing work, wipe down your overalls with a damp rag and remove them before removing your mask".
Asbestos waste must be double-bagged and disposed of at an appropriate site, along with the overalls.
Other precautions include "negative air-pressure tents", which use a filtered fan to extract air from the sealed area, create an inward flow of air and minimise leaks; a fine spray to dampen dust; and a three-stage decontamination unit. However, these are not required in all circumstances.