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Asbestos

Volume 929: debated on Thursday 7 April 1977

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asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on the progress up to the present date in the United Kingdom in the research and development of safe alternatives to the present industrial uses of asbestos.

I would refer my hon. Friend to the replies given by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Industry to previous Questions on this subject on 26th July 1976 and 7th March 1977.—[Vol. 152, c. 89–90; Vol. 927, c. 372.]Further to those replies, the physical and chemical properties of asbestos are such that suitable alternative materials are not easily found, but the results of progress in research and development have led to the use of alternatives for asbestos in some situations. I am advised that most insulation materials now applied are asbestos free, and that mineral fibres other than asbestos have been used in the manufacture of fire resistant board. Mineral fibre compositions have also been developed to replace sprayed asbestos, and leading contractors no longer accept work requiring application of sprayed asbestos coatings.In the shipbuilding industry, non-asbestos heat insulating materials are well established for lagging boilers and steam pipes. However, it is difficult to find a suitable substitute for brake linings and other friction applications, although work on possible substitutes is in hand.Some substitution has also occurred in heat resistant fabrics, bituminous materials, in the reinforcement of cement, and in certain forms of pipework. I understand that research is being carried out in industry on the possibility of substitution in other applications such as gaskets, packing and jointing, and in the reinforcement of plastics.In the beer, wine and spirits industry, there are several asbestos-free filter media available on the market based on a wide variety of substances including calcined diatomaceous earth with magnesia, alumina fibres, and cellulose fibres with non fibrous additives—e.g., kieselguhr.Where asbestos may currently be used in the pharmaceutical industry, no major problem is anticipated in adopting alternative filter media exclusively or filter media of some other kind inserted after the asbestos filter, which would retain any detached asbestos fibres.In Government laboratories, the Building Research Establishment has a long-term programme of research in fibrous composite materials based on special types of glass fibre, and binders such as cement, plaster, and calcium silicate. The results so far show that many of the materials developed might be used in place of asbestos based products.

The Health and Safety Commission's Advisory Committee on Asbestos is paying close regard to this important issue, and in order to give the question of substitutes the detailed attention it requires the Advisory Committee recently set up a working group to deal with this subject alone.