Migrants in Calais exposed to asbestos

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A site in Calais that’s being used to accommodate thousands of migrants has been found to be badly contaminated with chrysotile asbestos. An estimated 6,000 migrants originally from Sudan, are now based at the site which has been called ‘Jungle 2.’

Believed to be a former dumping ground for sheets of asbestos used for roofing, the camp is littered with pieces big and small, the larger blocks being used to hold down plastic sheeting and tents under which the migrants live.

Channel 4 has brought samples of the substance back to the UK for testing. The UKAS-accredited laboratory in Whitley Bay confirmed their suspicions that chrysotile asbestos was indeed present at the site.

The inherent dangers of white asbestos

Chrysotile, also known as white asbestos, was widely used in the manufacture of household products until its ban in France in 1996. It’s believed to be of lower risk to health if the fibres are encased in sheet form, but when broken and the fibres are released into the air, they can easily be inhaled.

Once breathed in, the fibres settle in the lungs and pleural membranes, potentially setting up long-term and fatal diseases. Exposure to white asbestos is known to cause pleural mesothelioma – an untreatable and aggressive form of lung cancer attributed to asbestos exposure.

The long latency period of up to several decades means that those knowingly exposed have to live under the threat of illness for most of their adult lives.

Due to the makeup and soft texture of chrysotile fibres, the substance was widely used to weave fireproofing and insulating materials for use in the home and in industry, with products including fire blankets and protective clothing.

Inhalation of asbestos fibres can lead to a range of illnesses

Dr Surinder Deshi of the University of Birmingham, commented on the dangers of inhaling asbestos fibres:

“ ….. these fibres can get deep into the lungs and the body can’t break them down or deal with them. So they sit there deep in the lungs and irritate and that can lead to diseases like Asbestosis, Mesothelioma, Lung Cancer and thickening of the lungs.”

The smaller fragments of white asbestos that have been found on the beach and dunes at the Calais camp, also pose a significant risk to the migrants. Being of a similar colour to the sand on which they lie, it is very difficult to distinguish between sand and asbestos dust.

Being exposed to asbestos in these circumstances increases the danger to health, as there is a high possibility of asbestos dust and small fibres coming into contact with shoes and clothing.

Safe removal and disposal of asbestos

In normal circumstances when asbestos is discovered, a survey is required to establish the exact location of the substance so that removal and disposal can go ahead safely. This task should involve specialist contractors wearing safety clothing, and a risk management plan that safeguards the workers and people in the area, so that public health is not put at risk.

Whether this happens in Calais remains to be seen.