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Are hospitals safe with the levels of asbestos?

Are hospitals safe with the levels of asbestos?

When we think of hospitals, we think of them as a safe place. As somewhere you can go when injured or sick, and come out all patched up. Yet are our hospitals really safe?

True, hospitals are prime locations for things such as superbugs which in recent years has led to many deaths. But what about the actual walls and structures of our hospitals? Are they what they appear to be?

The startling truth…

Would you believe that a massive 94% of hospitals in London contain asbestos? According to BBC London, this worrying figure is true, but that is not the worst of it:

  • Approximately 1000 people have died from mesothelioma in the last 6 years due to asbestos poisoning from hospitals. 7 of these were doctors and nurses.
  • One of London’s largest health trusts has paid out £1.3 million in compensation to people who developed illnesses from asbestos poisoning whilst in hospital.
  • Two of London’s largest hospitals have had 20 legal claims since 2001.

When you put these figures together, the risk of developing lung cancer and mesothelioma as a consequence of asbestos exposure, is a ticking time bomb just waiting to happen – a theory that both experts Jerry Swain (acting national instructor of Unite’s construction centre) and Lawyer Isobel Lovett (who has dealt with asbestos cases for the last 17 years) agree upon.

Why is the risk so high?

Much of the problem stems from the fact that many NHS properties were built when asbestos was still widely used within building materials.

Now if undisturbed these materials pose no problem. However, issues can arise if it becomes damaged or is poorly maintained. Should this occur, it doesn’t matter if only white asbestos was used to protect the piping (as claimed by the Health and Safety Executive) – the dangers it poses to can still be fatal to your health.

What is Mesothelioma?

Reputedly over 2,600 people die from Mesothelioma (a condition caused by asbestos which affects the lungs) in the UK every year. And the condition is not a merciful one.  

Most commonly contracted by working in offices or buildings with asbestos; individuals suffer through breathlessness; chest pains; night sweats and even spinal cord damage. Even with chemotherapy, only 2-3 months can be added to their average survival rate of 12 months.

Yet the risk of developing mesothelioma is even higher for those at high risk of exposure (contractors), where 5-10% of individuals will eventually develop it.

The Bigger Problem

You would think that knowing there is asbestos in our hospitals would prompt the government and NHS to take action, but unfortunately, it is not always that simple.

The biggest problem is that not all experts agree on the danger it poses.

For instance, the Health and Safety Executive has been quoted as saying that white asbestos isn’t a risk to workers or patients. Now this would be true if it is left undisturbed, but as other experts such as Swain and Lovett have pointed out, not only are ALL asbestos types dangerous; if workers are not fully aware of its presence and the danger it poses – IT IS still a risk.

And this is true…

In any type of building – residential, commercial or hospital – if workers are not made aware of its presence/location in the building, then there is a higher risk of it eventually becoming damaged and its fibres exposed.

Worse, if repairs/maintenance is not implemented immediately, then numerous individuals risk being exposed daily.

How big is the danger?

For patients, the chance of exposure is very minimal as most ACM’s can be found in locations where only a limited number of staff/contractors have access. However, for maintenance staff, this is a very different story as they are regularly expected to go into cramped locations (service ducts and service risers) that contain asbestos.

Duty to manage

Since 2004, laws have required the management of asbestos within healthcare premises. These laws ensure that everyone who occupies/works in the building is protected against exposure to asbestos. At the same time, measures are taken for those who have to work with the fabric of the building, to ensure that they are fully informed of its presence and locations, so they can avoid it.

This is all handled by a Duty Holder (usually someone from estates) who is required to perform the following:

  • Up to date asbestos surveys (to determine its presence, condition, and risk)
  • Asbestos Register (this provides information to hospital staff and contractors who have to access these asbestos locations)
  • Management plan (detailing how the asbestos will be managed)
  • Asbestos awareness training

Why not just remove it?

Whilst many hospitals have gone to great lengths to remove asbestos where possible – Camden NHS Trust has already spent £525,901 on its removal - implementing it can be challenging as it has to be done with minimal disruption to their clinical services.

For instance, to access floor voids in many hospitals this would have to be done using floor hatches found in ward areas. As you can imagine, none of this can be done whilst patients are present, so a great deal of planning has to done to find suitable access points that won’t disrupt patient care.

The future…

Whilst many hospitals are already taking steps to remove asbestos from their properties, it is important to be cautious and to learn about the properties you are visiting/working in. To learn more about the presence of asbestos in hospitals and how it may impact you, give ICE Asbestos a call today.

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