The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has recently announced that two UK laboratory supply companies have supplied schools and potentially other users with gauze mats which contain asbestos. The metal gauze mats are designed for use over Bunsen burners. While they are investigating how these particular gauze mats came into circulation, it’s vital that schools, colleges and other users identify any affected gauzes and dispose of them safely. It’s unclear how many schools will be affected at this stage, but all gauzes purchased since 1976 should be treated as suspect unless you can obtain UK Accreditation Service (UKAS) accredited certification from the supplier.
Why are the metal mesh gauzes a problem?
The samples tested by HSE have a white heat pad material on them which in some cases has been found to contain asbestos. Where detected, the content was around 20-30% tremolite asbestos. Asbestos use and supply is prohibited in the EU/UK but not everywhere in the world. Analysis of the gauze material by HSE has identified that it is fibrous in nature and that it contains asbestos. Asbestos is a known hazardous substance which causes lung cancer, mesothelioma and other respiratory diseases. Any risk from asbestos depends on the extent of asbestos fibre release and inhalation of these very fine fibres.
What level of risk is there?
The risk from asbestos in the gauze material from normal tripod use will generally be extremely low for several reasons. The material is predominantly non-asbestos. There is very limited physical contact with the material during use (eg essentially placing items on top) and any contact is light and momentary. Consequently any free fibre release into the air will be minimal for normal use. However, the material is soft and crumbly and some small particles or fragments may detach on occasions including during use. Particles and debris may also break off over time through abrasion or impact in storage. These particles and fragments do not represent an airborne risk.
As a precautionary measure, and in-line with the general legal requirement to prevent exposure to asbestos, the gauzes should be disposed of. Any debris in containers or boxes should be carefully cleaned up and also disposed of.
How can I tell if my gauzes are a problem?
You cannot visually identify asbestos on the gauze mat. You can either assume they contain asbestos, stop using them and dispose of them safely following the requirements of environmental legislation or you can use a laboratory accredited by the UKAS to analyse samples to see if asbestos is present. Somerset Scientific Services are UKAS accredited for asbestos testing. We can test a sample gauze to see whether your supplies need to be disposed of or are safe to continue using. Contact us for a quote and to arrange delivery of a sample.
How should I dispose of the gauzes?
The gauzes will need to be taken out of use and disposed in accordance with relevant published guidance on hazardous waste. Where non asbestos-containing gauzes are stored directly alongside asbestos-containing gauzes, these should be treated as contaminated waste. Other equipment which has been stored with asbestos-containing gauzes can be wiped clean with a damp cloth if there is any visible dust present. The cloth should be disposed of as contaminated waste.
The work to dispose of asbestos-containing gauzes and waste items is considered to be a low risk activity but it still needs precautions. The work should only be undertaken by individuals who can adhere to relevant guidance and have the right equipment, though there is no legal requirement to use the services of an asbestos removal contractor.
Where possible, the gauzes stored in a container should be disposed of in the container to prevent further handling of individual gauzes. Container and gauzes should be treated as asbestos-containing waste.
What precautions can be taken?
Where it is not possible to dispose of the stored gauze in its container, the gauzes should be carefully wetted using a hand-held spray bottle containing water with a small quantity of detergent (eg washingup liquid) and handled carefully to prevent any further damage. They should be placed in a suitable heavy-duty polythene waste bag which is then placed in a second bag (ie double bagged) and labelled accordingly. Caution will need to be taken as the corners of the gauze may be sharp and could penetrate the polythene so it may be more suitable to place the gauzes into a container such as a rigid, sealable plastic container before placing into suitable waste bags.
Any excess water from spray and dust/debris from the gauzes should be wiped up using a damp rag and the rag should be disposed of in the same manner. As this is low risk and short duration work, respiratory protective equipment (RPE) is not legally required. However, duty-holders may wish to adopt a precautionary approach regarding the use of RPE and personal protective clothing.
Where can schools get further detailed advice?
Schools in England and Wales can refer to the CLEAPSS website for further advice. Members will also have access to the CLEAPSS Helpline. Scottish schools can seek advice from SSERC. For Health & Safety issues not answered by this article or the organisations mentioned, you can contact HSE directly.