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Asbestos: the UK’s number one occupational killer

By Mesothelioma UK

Published 12 September 2023

While the import, supply and use of asbestos was banned from 1999, it is still present in most buildings built before the year 2000. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), asbestos is still in around 300,000 non-domestic buildings including hospitals, schools, prisons, council offices and more.

Before its ban, asbestos was used in a wide range of industries because of its resistance to chemicals, heat, water and electricity. In particular it was used as an insulator in the ship-building industry and as a cheap construction material for post-war buildings.

The deadly dust

The first documented death from asbestos was as far back as 1906, however it wasn’t until the 1950s that the first report linking asbestos and lung cancer was produced. 

From the 1950s onwards there was an understanding in the medical community of the link between asbestos and cancer, although the first report linking asbestos to mesothelioma specifically wasn’t until 1960. 

In 1985 the first mandatory ban on asbestos was introduced, but this only covered blue and brown asbestos. White asbestos is far more common in the UK, and was not banned until 1999.  Whilst there has been some debate previously about whether white asbestos was harmful, it is now widely accepted that all types of asbestos are carcinogenic.  

HSE statistics on asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer in Britain, show that asbestos-related deaths have now climbed to over 5,000 each year. In 2020, there were 2,544 mesothelioma deaths in total (Health and Safety Executive ‘Mesothelioma statistics for Great Britain, 2022’), with a similar number of lung cancer deaths linked to past exposures to asbestos.


Mesothelioma is a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos in up to 90 per cent of all cases. It affects the mesothelium which is a thin membrane that lines the inner surface of:

  • The chest wall, where it is known as the pleura
  • The abdomen where it is known as the peritoneum
  • The heart where it is known as the pericardium
  • The testes

Mesothelioma is more common in men than in women and nearly half of the people diagnosed with the disease are over 75 years old (Royal College of Physicians 2020 ‘National Mesothelioma Audit report 2020’) and there is usually a long delay (between 15 and 45 years) from exposure to the onset of the disease.

Mesothelioma used to be thought of as ‘an old man’s disease’ but there is increasing evidence demonstrating how the demographic and occupation of those dying is changing. Teachers, healthcare workers, and younger people who have never worked with asbestos are all at risk of contracting an asbestos-related disease. This is something that has also been identified by Mesothelioma UK nurses, who are seeing patients from occupational backgrounds previously not considered at high risk of exposure to asbestos.

Research by Howie concluded that teachers and nurses experienced about four and two times higher mesothelioma deaths. (Howie R. 2017 ‘Mesothelioma Deaths in Teachers and Nurses in Great Britain. Environmental Health Scotland 2017;29(4):35-37)

Mesothelioma can sometimes be treated with immunotherapy, chemotherapy or, less commonly, surgery. However, whilst some progress is being made to find new treatments there is no cure and sadly, it can progress quite quickly after diagnosis with only 10 per cent of people living three years beyond diagnosis (Royal College of Physicians 2020 ‘National Mesothelioma Audit report 2020’). Mesothelioma has a high burden of symptoms which includes breathlessness, pain, weight loss and fatigue. It is a devastating diagnosis for patients and families and the fact that this disease is preventable can make it even harder to come to terms with. 

Before and after Mesothelioma
Before and after Mesothelioma

Where might asbestos be?

Asbestos was commonly used in building materials that were used in workplace and industrial buildings in the 1950s – 1990s. Therefore, it is possible that asbestos containing materials may be found in any workplace premises built or refurbished before the year 2000, including many schools and hospitals. It is thought that up to 81 per cent of schools (Department of Education 2019 ‘Asbestos Management Assurance Process report’) and 94 per cent of hospitals in London contain asbestos (BBC News, London 2017).

A detailed list of typical locations where asbestos materials can be found in industrial and workplace properties can be found on the HSE website.

It can be difficult to identify asbestos, as it is often mixed with other materials. The HSE asbestos image gallery shows a number of common materials that contain asbestos. These include ceiling tiles, floor tiles, roof panelling, pipe lagging and many more.

Raising awareness of the dangers

Mesothelioma UK is dedicated to providing specialist mesothelioma information, support and education, and to improving care and treatment for all UK mesothelioma patients and their carers. It aims to prevent mesothelioma happening to future generations.

In addition to supporting patients and families through a network of clinical nurse specialists, Mesothelioma UK funds research, produces a National Mesothelioma Audit, promotes clinical trials and collaborates with organisations and campaigns seeking to promote better management or removal of asbestos.

In July 2023, the Sunday Times launched a campaign, Act Now on Asbestos, highlighting the dangers of asbestos in public buildings and calling for a national plan for the removal of all asbestos over the next four decades.

“Former pupils and teachers are dying after exposure to asbestos in classrooms, decades ago, while children continue to be taught in schools full of the material…The Sunday Times believes there should be a national register of buildings with asbestos.”

Sunday Times front page, 2 July 2023.

Mesothelioma UK fully supports the Sunday Times’ efforts to raise awareness of the dangers of asbestos and as part of it’s Don’t Let The Dust Settle campaign, encourages people to sign a parliamentary petition calling for a register and a phased removal plan.

Challenging the asbestos regulations

In 2021, Mesothelioma UK Chief Executive, Liz Darlison, gave evidence at a Work & Pensions Select Committee inquiry into the Health and Safety Executive’s asbestos policy. The resulting report referred to asbestos-related illness as ‘one of the great workplace tragedies of modern times’, with the HSE estimating that the total annual cost of death from mesothelioma is £3.4 billion. The report recommended a cross-government strategy for the removal of asbestos from public buildings within 40 years and a central register to record the location and condition of asbestos in public buildings.

These recommendations were robustly supported by Mesothelioma UK. Unfortunately, the Government/HSE response to the W&P Select Committee report showed little movement on any of the recommendations. On the phased, prioritised removal of asbestos from at-risk buildings – something Mesothelioma UK strongly advocates – the Government says: ‘The Government could only advocate a proactive course of action in this area if there is compelling evidence that the, undoubted, increase in exposure to asbestos workers that will result from active removal, possibly prematurely, is justified in terms of reducing risk of exposure to building users. At present this evidence is not there.’

With the continued danger of asbestos exposure, particularly to public sector workers, Mesothelioma UK will press the Government to empower the Health and Safety Executive to deliver better research, measurement and monitoring of asbestos risk, to ensure enforcement of and compliance with Control of Asbestos Regulations.


For more information on mesothelioma, or if you would like to know more about our work and how to get involved please contact Mesothelioma UK at or visit


OH Today Spring 2023
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