Thursday, 10 January 2013

Asbestos Disease Bill

You can imagine breathing this in will cause a lot of damage.
Mick Antoniw's Bill will enable the Welsh NHS to claim compensation
for treating asbestos-related diseases.
(Pic :
Just before the Christmas recess, Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) laid the second Member's Bill before the Assembly – the Recovery of Medical Costs for Asbestos Diseases Bill. For brevity I'm calling it the Asbestos Disease Bill.

Asbestos – Why is it such a problem?

Asbestos is a building material manufactured from minerals, which was once heavily-used in construction for insulation and its fire-resistance properties. Some types of asbestos release fibres when disturbed – deliberately or accidentally – but all asbestos causes some sort of health problem in humans.

Asbestos fibres, under a microscope, look like nettles (as you can see above). When breathed in, they cause mechanical or genetic damage to the respiratory system, and lead to diseases such as:
  • Lung cancer
  • Mesothelioma - A cancer of the protective linings (mesothelium) of the chest cavity and abdomen.
  • Asbestosis – Fibrosis ("scarring") of the lungs caused by asbestos fibres.
  • Pleural diseases – The pleura is a folded membrane which help the lungs slide across the ribs when breathing.

The time it takes for the symptoms to appear varies, but it's estimated that there are up to 4,500 deaths from asbestos-related diseases in the UK every year. Cases of asbestos-related diseases are expected to peak in 2016 and then start to fall.

Asbestos has been banned across the European Union, and in the UK since 1985 – though some types continued to be used until around 2000.Obviously, some people will have been exposed to asbestos on a routine basis if they worked in construction or manufacturing while asbestos was used.

Asbestos was commonly used in public buildings
during the 60s and 70s.
(Pic : BBC Wales)

As it was widely used in the construction of public buildings during the 60s and 70s, every now and again you'll have a situation like that at Cwmcarn High School last year. The whole school was shut when unacceptably high levels of asbestos fibres were found. Plaid Cymru recently estimated it would cost "hundreds of millions of pounds" to remove all asbestos from all Welsh schools.

Sometimes - with a cruel irony - asbestos is found in hospitals themselves, like Bronglais Hospital in Aberystwyth. Fortunately, it can be removed safely.

What does the Bill aim to do?

The overall aim of the Bill, is to enable the Welsh Government to recover costs for treating asbestos-related illnesses on the Welsh NHS from a person/company paying compensation for asbestos exposure.

There are numerous Acts of Parliament and regulations that determine who is liable for exposing employees to asbestos, and it's estimated that treating asbestos-related disease costs the Welsh NHS between £2-3million per year.

The Bill is described as an extension of the Social Care (Community Health & Standards) Act 2003, treating asbestos-related disease – in shorthand – as a "personal injury".

It's not proposing a new compensation scheme like miners diseases in recent years. It doesn't impact an individual's right to compensation either, or place any sort of levy on it. It would just ensure the Welsh NHS get compensation for treating diseases.

Any costs would be paid to the Welsh Government directly, and become part of the annual health & social services budget. I believe it's intended to use that money to help people suffering from asbestos diseases and their families.

A "tariff" system would be established – similar to that for road accidents - to determine the costs for treating asbestos disease patients. A scenario in the Explanatory Memorandum is given of 11 patients, and it's estimated the total cost of treating them is around £256,000, with an average cost - per patient - of £23,300.

The total cost of administering the system by Local Health Boards would be around £40-50,000 per year.

Practically all organisations dealing with asbestos disease, and relevant trade unions, supported the principles of Bill.

There was only one organisation that didn't – The Association of British Insurers.