Though asbestos in now banned in Britain, many buildings we live and work in today predate the ban. For example, about 90% of schools still contain asbestos. As a result, thousands of people are dying, and will continue to die, from asbestos related diseases which very often are not manifest until many years, even decades, after exposure.

Asbestos is a fibrous substance found in seams between layers of rock. The fibres are strong, flexible, and will not burn below 1000 ºC. There are different types but these days 95% of all asbestos mined is white asbestos, or Chrysotile.

When processed it is broken down into tiny fibres, which are so strong and pliable they can be spun and woven. There is practically no limit to how small these fibres can get. When asbestos is used, even if only handled, it gives off dust, some of it invisible. These invisible fibres can enter the lungs and are responsible for asbestos related diseases.

Asbestosis is the most virulent form of pneumoconiosis and, unlike silicosis, continues to worsen, even if the victim has ceased working with asbestos. In 1947 the Chief Medical Inspector of Factories reported that asbestos victims were ten times more likely to get lung cancer than miners or quarry workers suffering from silicosis.

Mesothelioma was a rare cancer of the lung until, in the 1950s and ’60s, increasing numbers of cases were reported, nearly all connected with asbestos. What was even more alarming was that many of the victims of Mesothelioma had contracted it from either living near a mine of factory, or from dust shaken off a relative’s work clothes. Mesothe-lioma is today the biggest industrial killer in this country.

Conservative estimates for the number of British people who will die of asbestos related diseases, based on World Health Organisation figures, are 50,000 for lung cancer and 12,000 for Mesothelioma.

If workers discover asbestos contaminating their workplace, they should act immediately; under health and safety legislation, we have the right to refuse to work in hazardous conditions. So, workers should walk straight off the job, demanding the boss to bring in qualified people to seal off the hazardous area and to remove all asbestos.

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