Asbestos turned into a disaster for construction partly because insurers failed to spot the danger quickly enough. Could they be doing the same now?

The havoc that is wrought by asbestos is appalling. Between 1968 and 1998, 50,000 people died in the UK as a consequence of exposure to it, at least 3500 die each year, and the rate of deaths is rising. Yet the worst is still to come: deaths in the UK are not expected to peak until the five years after 2010 when as many as 10,000 people a year will die.

Asbestos was used in vast quantities as a building material from the 1950s to the 1980s; its use peaked in the 1970s. Although some asbestos has been removed from buildings, many thousands of tonnes remain, and workers in the demolition, maintenance and building trades remain at particular risk from asbestos exposure.

But are we missing the emergence of a new “asbestos”-style danger? Could a material in common use today be as devastating? Or does new technology have hidden dangers?

The insurance industry keeps a close eye on emerging risks and so should the construction industry. Those risks that insurers have identified with the potential to cause serious harm include nanotechnology, toxic mould, electromagnetic radiation, silica and genetically modified organisms. So what is the current view of some of these emerging risks?

Nanotechnology is a young technology with tremendous potential to revolutionise our lives. Particular applications in the construction industry include the cleaning of contaminated land that has defeated existing technology. While this is undoubtedly exciting, there are downsides. Nanotechnology has already created nanoparticles, infinitesimal specks that behave in unusual ways. Of concern is their mobility: they can gain almost unlimited access to the human body and are one of the few classes of substance that can cross the blood/brain barrier. We simply do not know where this technology will lead us and what risks it may pose.

A more easily assessable risk is that posed by toxic mould. Toxic mould is a black, slimy substance, scientific name stachybotrys chartarum. Its spores are light and easily spread, for example, through air-conditioning systems. It thrives in wet, warm conditions where it has a cellulose food source such as paper, plasterboard or cardboard. Despite the fact that there is little scientific consensus on the effects of long-term, low level exposure to toxic mould, the number of claims in the USA has exploded, and it has been estimated that $4bn has been paid out by American insurers to date.

While a number of factors argue against toxic mould becoming such a problem in the UK, including prevailing weather conditions, the industry needs to learn the lessons of what has happened in the USA to ensure that there is no repeat. Toxic mould undoubtedly exists in the UK and, given the right conditions, it will thrive.

Silica is another possible danger. Silica is present in substantial quantities in sand, sandstone and granite and often forms a significant proportion of clay, shale and slate. Breathing in silica dust can cause silicosis, a chronic lung disease, and may contribute to lung cancer and pulmonary tuberculosis. Despite the fact that silicosis cases are declining in the USA, the number of claims is rising. It has been suggested that American lawyers are trying to find a replacement for their lucrative asbestos work.

The HSE estimates that about 100,000 workers in the UK are exposed to silica. However it believes that the threat of silica is negligible if its rules are followed by employers. These include ensuring the use of suppression-damping measures and exhaust ventilation.

In contrast composite panels are a fairly mature risk about which insurers have been concerned for some time. While they have many advantages including excellent insulation properties, they are also highly combustible, catching fire quickly and burning intensely. A greater understanding of the risks associated with the use of composite panels means that this problem, while it will not disappear, has become manageable.

The march of modern technology, combined with what may be lengthy periods of latency before ill-effects manifest themselves, have created an increasingly uncertain world in the field of construction insurance. Greater vigilance may lessen the impact of a future catastrophic risk.

Jane Hughes is a solicitor at Kendall Freeman and can be contacted at