The public health risk caused by a huge fire in an asbestos-clad industrial unit in Dundee could be higher than initially believed.
Phillip Gower, a specialist asbestos disease solicitor, said there is evidence fires similar to the one which occurred at Baldovie Industrial Estate on Sunday have caused serious illness.
Just over 40 hours after the fire service arrived at the scene on Forties Road, NHS Tayside confirmed the presence of white asbestos but said the risk to locals was “extremely low”.
Dust from the carcinogen was found throughout the surrounding area including at Baldovie Recycling Centre and in nearby gardens with dozens of local residents watching from the street as the fire raged.
It is understood the roof of the former Wood Group unit, occupied by Carpet Reclaim Ltd., was made using asbestos cement, meaning 50% of the roof sheet contained the potentially harmful material.
Mr Gower, who is Associate Legal Director at Swindon-based Novum Law and has 25 years’ expertise in personal injury and asbestos-related disease compensation claims, said people should be advised there is an increased risk.
He said: “I think to call the risk negligible is wrong.
“Certainly a building on fire of that size with asbestos present and broken down by heat will present a risk to the surrounding people, particularly firefighters and those standing outside watching.
“The size of that risk would be difficult to quantify because the fibres are impossible to see in the air.
“The only real way to tell would be to test the air for fibres and they would likely be present for as long as the fire was burning.”
He added: “OK, the danger to people is probably not massive but it’s still there.
“It doesn’t follow that just because you’re exposed to it, you’re going to get ill in the future but people should have been warned to stay away.”
A representative of an asbestos removal company, which did not wish to be named for commercial reasons, backed the lawyer’s claims the risk is worth highlighting to the public.
Research into asbestos, commonly used in construction from the 1950s through to the mid-1980s before being outlawed, has found it to be generally safe if left undisturbed.
However, if the fibres become airborne and are inhaled it can cause mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases like asbestosis and asbestos lung cancer.
John Fearn, manager at Dundee-based charity Asbestos Action, which assists sufferers of asbestos-related diseases in Scotland, said any release into the atmosphere is “concerning”.
He said: “It’s certainly not a good thing, put it that way.
“Even without asbestos, people shouldn’t be standing nearby watching a big fire like that because of the smoke.
“I’d be concerned for the police, fire service and anyone else who was going in to that area.
“The issue with asbestos is the latency period is 20 to 40 years so it’s not something that’s going to affect someone straight away.
“Often people are diagnosed with mesothelioma and they can’t remember ever being exposed to it.”
A spokesperson for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said: “HSE has made enquiries into the incident and found it was not a reportable fire under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR) 2013.
“As such, HSE will not be investigating the incident.”
The health board said on Tuesday: “The public should be reassured that advice from NHS Tayside’s Public Health team is that on the basis of international evidence, the risk to human health from large fires involving asbestos is negligible.
“The ongoing risk to the health of the local population and those who were in the vicinity at the time of this fire is extremely low.
“As smoke from fires can irritate the airways, the advice remains that local residents, particularly those with long term health issues or respiratory conditions should stay indoors and keep windows closed until the smoke plume has passed.
“If local residents find any debris or material from the fire in their garden or near their property, as a precaution, the advice is not to touch it and to contact Dundee City Council’s Environmental Health team on 01382 433710 for advice.”
NHS Tayside said the advice was a multi-agency response following discussions between them and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and Dundee City Council, which included expert medical advice for the public.
Dundee City Council-run Baldovie Recycling Centre, which has been shut since the incident, will reopen on Saturday.