A couple of weeks ago, during a short break in London, I paid a visit to HMS Belfast a battle cruiser that served in the Royal Navy from 1939 until 1963. Today it’s moored on the Thames and is part of the Imperial War Museum.
I think that most Occupational Hygienists find it difficult to leave the day job behind, so as we were following the visitor route around he ship I couldn’t help but notice the amount of asbestos lagging present on pipes, boilers and other equipment.
It was everywhere. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much asbestos in one place.
I was glad to see that the Imperial War Museum had taken their responsibility to protect the health of their visitors, workforce and contractors. It seems like they have had a comprehensive survey undertaken and the lagging all seemed to be in good condition with labels applied at various points to make it clear that asbestos was present.
There was also a notice telling visitors about the presence of asbestos and that they should make sure that they didn’t disturb asbestos containing materials.
People often panic when they see or hear the word “asbestos”. But it can only cause harm if the microscopic fibres are inhaled. So as long as asbestos containing materials are in good condition and aren’t disturbed, airborne dust shouldn’t be created and so the risk to health should be negligible. And from what I saw as I walked around the ship, there was no cause for concern.
It would have been a different matter when the ship was being built, repaired and renovated. Shipbuilding is one of the highest risk occupations for asbestos related disease. That’s not surprising given the extremely high concentrations of dust that used to be generated during work with asbestos products during shipbuilding and ship repair work (there’s an interesting paper on this published in the Annals of Occupational Hygiene in 1971 which makes interesting reading).