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'Asbestos is a problem for present and future, not just the past' - Bairbre de Brún

22 September, 2005

Sinn Féin MEP Bairbre de Brún is today participating in a European Conference highlighting the issue of asbestos in Brussels. The event entitled 'European Asbestos Conference: Policy, Status and Human Rights' involves a political panel discussion where Ms de Brún will present a report on the current situation regarding asbestos in Ireland.

The conference has been organized by the GUE/NGL group in the European Parliament and will be attended by representatives from the medical and legal fields, local campaigners and MEPs amongst others.

Speaking today the former Assembly Health Minister said:

"Today's keynote European Conference has brought together a wide range of experts from medical and legal experts to factory inspectors, those responsible for asbestos removal, politicians and local campaigners. They have come together from 25 different countries and all are united in saying that asbestos is a problem for the present and future - not just the past.

"It is clear that we need strong implementation of the European ban on the use of asbestos and EU wide monitoring of where asbestos material is present in homes, on farms and public buildings. Continued monitoring of the health of workers in such buildings and EU wide action to deal with environmental and work related asbestos exposure is also required.

"In regards to the Irish experience, the eradication of asbestos materials in domestic and commercial properties should be a priority for both the Irish and British governments. Furthermore, safety and transparency must be at the core of dealing with asbestos once it has been removed. Given Ireland's experience with the effects of asbestos related illness, it is no surprise that local people have concerns about asbestos storage facilities.

"Buildings such as schools and other public amenities must be an immediate priority. It is clear that much work still needs to be done if we are to tackle the issue of asbestos effectively and safely. Whilst new cases continue to emerge, we must work to dispel the myth that asbestos associated illness is a 'disease of the past'. There is an onus upon government and the business sector to support those who have suffered as a result of asbestos related illness, for sufferers, carers and families of the bereaved.

"I want to take this opportunity to praise the work of those in Ireland and throughout Europe who have campaigned tirelessly to keep this issue in the public spotlight, and ensured that those affected have a voice." ENDS

Full Text of speech:

'Asbestos' in Ireland

Bairbre de Brún MEP

I should like to concentrate this morning on two broad themes in relation to asbestos in Ireland, North and South. The first is the tragic damage inflicted on workers, their families and other citizens through the use of asbestos in the past and the second is the urgent need for action to avoid further needless death and suffering.

The first broad theme - dealing with the tragic effects incurred to date - includes the need for our health services and our insurance and social security systems to plan for the projected explosion of asbestos related illness in the years ahead as symptoms come to light, as well as the many workers or their families who still seek support and compensation for illness contracted at work.

The city of Belfast owes much to its industrial past. Shipyards, mills and factories dominated the city skyline throughout the 20th century. Indeed, the great Titanic ship was built at the Harland and Wolff shipyard, but behind this feat of engineering genius lay the scourge of asbestos, which affected thousands of people and ensured that many died prematurely.

It is believed that up to 3000 former workers in the shipyard could still be affected. According to figures from Queens University Belfast's Health and Social Care Unit, published in the Journal of Public Heath Medicine, 527 asbestos related deaths were recorded in the North of Ireland between the years 1985-1994; 88% of these were men and the deaths were clustered around the Belfast estuary, the site of the city's shipbuilding industry. According to recent research in Britain, mesothelioma (a cancerous tumour in the lung caused by asbestos) will reach epidemic proportions by 2015, with more than 8,000 people expected to die each year in Europe from 2015 onwards.

Asbestos was commonly used in building materials for purposes of heat insulation, sound insulation or fire proofing and workers in the construction industry rank alongside shipyard workers, plumbers, and some who worked in the chemical industry as those commonly affected in Ireland.

Families bereaved through asbestos related illnesses have fought long and hard to ensure employers and government admitted their responsibilities. A landmark ruling in 2002 meant that thousands of workers were able to claim compensation for cancer contracted as a result of exposure to asbestos and a number of trade unions have brought several successful cases against companies whose workers developed the disease. It is clear that many more families continue to fight and will have to fight future battles to secure compensation against certain businesses.

The second broad theme I want to deal with is about prevention of future unnecessary death by ensuring implementation of a proper ban on the use of asbestos and the correct regulations and procedures for its safe removal. Furthermore, safety and transparency must be at the core of dealing with asbestos once it has been removed.

Legal position:

The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations (NI) 2003 ensures that there is an explicit duty upon those responsible for the maintenance and repair of non-domestic premises to manage asbestos and compliance with the legislation rests with the employer. However, the law does not deal with the likes of self-employed construction workers who come into contact with asbestos in their work.

In terms of domestic dwellings, the public housing authority, the Housing Executive, will deal with the safe removal of asbestos from homes with Housing Executive tenants. However, those who were public housing tenants but who have since bought their homes from the Housing Executive in a widely promoted scheme have been told that they must take care of the asbestos problem themselves. Similar difficulties have arisen in South County Dublin with asbestos sheeting used as the main material in the roofs of all outhouses built between the late 1970s and mid 1980s by Dublin Corporation and County Council. While there are plans to train workers in the public housing sector to safely remove this material, little account is being taken of the potential risks to uninformed individuals carrying out DIY on their homes. Some may independently undertake work to dismantle these sheds and outhouses and become exposed to the asbestos material.

With regard to the proper handling of asbestos once removed, local communities such as those in Crumlin, and West Belfast face a lack of openness and transparency about planning applications for asbestos storage facilities and those in Crumlin have had to go to court in a bid to have the potential risks dealt with seriously.

The original application for Crosshill in Crumlin, for example, was for 'pre-bagged asbestos containing materials that would arrive on site contained within sealed lorry containers. The containers would not be opened during storage.' The planning application was then amended to say 'Asbestos will be double-bagged in plastic containers at source and will arrive on site where smaller loads will be transferred from the vehicles to the containers on site.'

Residents complain of a series of difficulties in relation to transparency and to the assessment of risk from the proposed facility. A group has been set up to oppose and challenge the establishment of the asbestos site and they were recently given leave to take a judicial review of the decision by the planning authorities to grant permission for the facility.

A planning application has also been made to develop an asbestos storage facility at the Kennedy Way industrial complex in Belfast. The application is currently being considered by the Belfast City Council Town Planning Committee. This matter has caused considerable concern locally and residents want them to refrain from a decision at least until the outcome of the Crumlin Judicial Review is known.

We can see from the number of campaigns and the variety of ways in which people continue to be affected and are likely to be affected well into the future that this is an extremely serious issue in Ireland and across Europe. Today's international conference is of crucial importance in dealing not only with the cold, hard statistics relating to asbestos, but with the experience of those whose lives have been devastated and those who campaign to prevent others facing similar experiences in the future.

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