Investigation into British companies sending asbestos overseas

Materials World magazine
7 Aug 2019

British firms have been secretly shipping asbestos overseas, revealed The Sunday Times. Shardell Joseph reports.

An investigation conducted by The Sunday Times has exposed several British firms secretly sending asbestos to developing countries, some of which still use the mineral in construction and engineering despite it being harmful. Current law states that asbestos is prohibited from use in construction in the UK, but some companies found a way to exploit a loophole, which enabled them to trade the mineral in secrecy. Due to this, Britain is one of the world’s largest traders of asbestos.

Despite the UK banning asbestos in construction 20 years ago, the investigation found that hundreds of thousands of tonnes worth of asbestos have been shipped overseas by several British-registered companies. Because of the laws regarding trading in the mineral, this activity is not unlawful in the UK and there is no suggestion that the companies are engaging in illicit activity. However, The Sunday Times revealed that many of the companies are registered as limited partnerships (LPs), which allows them to operate without publishing their accounts, stating ownership or paying taxes.

At time of print, the issue of LPs was set to be raised in the House of Commons in July by Scottish National Party MP, Martin Docherty-Hughes, to demand the restriction on the ability to trade in secrecy.

In response to the investigation, the government said, ‘We are aware of reports that in a minority of cases, Scottish limited partnerships have been used for criminal activity. We have published proposals to reform limited partnership law, and intend to bring forward legislation to bring them into law as soon as possible.’

According to The Sunday Times investigation:

  • A South African company run by a British business person, arranged the shipping of 2,128 tonnes of chrysotile raw asbestos, worth US$1.2mln, to India. In 2015, the company was said to be responsible for 741 shipments overseas, a total of 65,324 tonnes, valued at US$38.7mln. These shipments reached India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Mexico.
  • Russian customs data for 2015 found that an office registered in Scotland was responsible for 106 shipments of asbestos to Cuba and Vietnam, totalling 34,636 tonnes valued at US$13.67mln.
  •     In August and September last year, another UK LP was responsible for 36 shipments of asbestos. This totalled 2,965 tonnes, valued at US$1.39mln.
  • An England-based company has been the biggest trader in Russian asbestos for the past 17 years. The LP company arranged the export of 263,660 tonnes of asbestos worth US$71.46mln.