Asbestos – Still a Topical Subject
In June of this year, The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and the Committee of the Regions (CoR) heard that the total number of estimated asbestos related deaths in Europe could reach a total of 47,000 per year – this is 50% higher than previously thought and double those deaths related to road accidents. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that between 20,000 to 30,000 cases of asbestos related diseases will be recorded every year in the European Union (EU) alone and that more than 300,000 citizens are expected to die from Mesothelioma by 2030 in the EU. Although banned in 2005, asbestos can still be found in many places such as ships, trains, machinery, tunnels and pipes in public and private water distribution networks. It was used extensively in buildings erected between 1961 and 1990 with millions of tonnes of it still present in buildings today. It is believed that over 80% of schools in the United Kingdom still contain asbestos. Asbestos removal programmes for member states could cost up to €15 billion per country.
In Switzerland they have taken the following steps to deal with asbestos:
In a recent judgment by the European Court of Human Rights, it was decided that the limitation period of ten years to make an asbestos-related claim under Swiss federal law was void, as asbestos related illnesses often materialise many decades after exposure. As a consequence, the Swiss Parliament is currently considering an extension of the 10 year limitation period. Such an extension may lead to a flood of lawsuits from asbestos victims, particularly in light of the prediction by SUVA (the Swiss Accident Insurance Fund) that there will be an increase in asbestos related illnesses by 2020. Despite a ban on asbestos in 1989, asbestos materials are present in many old buildings. Apart from the well-known fibre-cement boards or asbestos cardboards used to insulate electrical fuel boards, asbestos can also be found in less well-known materials, such as window-and tile sealants, pipe insulation and floor insulating boards.
According to the Swiss Construction Regulation (BauAV, article 3), where there is suspicion that asbestos is present, employers must identify the hazards, assess the associated risks of exposure and put the necessary measures in place. If a particularly hazardous substance is detected during the course of the building works, the work must be discontinued and the client notified. In practice, this implies that building owners must carry out an analysis of the existing materials before the renovation or demolition work is due to begin or continued. It is the duty of the contractor to instruct and train all workers who are at risk of asbestos exposure, and in the event of suspicion, halt all work. In the recent years, a particularly high and increasing number of registered victims have been identified amongst electricians and plumbers. In response to this, SUVA (the Swiss Accident Insurance Fund) has published a number of sector-specific guidance documents.
Building owners and employers with buildings which were built before 1990 are advised to have them screened by an expert. Thereby asbestos-suspected materials are analysed. Whether these suspected materials actually contain asbestos, this can only be ascertained by means of laboratory analyses. We recommend to have the sample analysed by specialist laboratories, which by means of adequate preparation of the sample, achieve an asbestos detection limit of 0.1%. This is important, as the asbestos content in particular window sealants, pipe insulation and floor boards is often in the lower percentage range. Concentrations of < 5% are often undetectable by means of an optical light microscope alone.
In the event asbestos is detected, a risk assessment must be carried out, to establish the potential risks to people within the building, and the necessary measures to be taken. These measures must be recorded in an action plan.
More about asbestos-containing building materials and sector-specific information can be found on the SUVA Homepage:
Guest blog written by Melanie Aeberhard and Rolf Gerber, Neosys AG, Switzerland