Decades after the dangers of asbestos were first recognised, the substance has still not been eradicated from some buildings constructed in the 1960s or earlier. A High Court case that should be required reading for residential landlords underlined that the risk of asbestos exposure remains a ticking time bomb even today.
The case concerned a man who had been a tenant of the same local authority flat for 40 years before his death, aged 73. During his final years, he had suffered from mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs which is almost invariably associated with exposure to asbestos. It was accepted that the condition had accelerated his death by four years.
The block, which had been built in the 1960s, contained asbestos insulation boards and floor tiles; its lifts and stair lobbies were lined with the substance and the paint used to coat the walls contained asbestos. It had also been used as insulation in individual flats and was present in meter cupboards and toilet cisterns.
The man’s widow claimed almost £140,000 in damages from the local authority on the basis that his condition probably arose from exposure to asbestos within his home. It was argued that asbestos had been disturbed during the installation of central heating in the 1980s. The man was also intensely house proud and may have been exposed during his annual redecoration of his flat.
In dismissing the widow’s claim, however, the Court found that she had failed to establish that the local authority had breached its duty of care. Asbestos has to be disturbed, to create dust, in order to be harmful and its mere presence in the block did not of itself present a material risk of exposure.
Asbestos had been removed from the block in 2005, but there had been no duty on the council to do so earlier. Any contact with asbestos during redecoration and cleaning of the flat would have been intermittent and trivial, and it had not been proved that the man’s condition was caused by his occupancy or use of the flat.