Staff are being sent for lung tests and X-rays by Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust and a decontamination unit has been installed at the site in St Pancras Way.
The NHS trust stressed that the public had not been affected but emails have gone out to staff warning that “we have found asbestos debris” and “no access is allowed”.
Workers who use the tunnels – which span the undercroft of the entire site – are being dressed in specialist protective suits and face-fitted masks as a “precautionary measure”. An insider said:
“There are loads of people who have been sent to work down in those tunnels every day for years. Where were the checks? Now they are going down there dressed up in protective suits and with face masks on.”
Independent experts are understood to have found amosite and crocidolite, which are potentially the most dangerous forms of asbestos. When asbestos becomes damaged, fibres can be released into the air which, if breathed in, can increase the risk of lung disease.
Questions are now being asked about whether full asbestos checks were carried out and why specialist asbestos manager posts were not filled after the trust took over ownership of the large site in 2012. The trust said it was taking legal advice on whether the proper certificates were obtained at the time.
The problem only came to light after contractor Cofely asked about asbestos checks during negotiations over a multi-million pound maintenance contract.
A trust spokeswoman said:
“The Trust has identified asbestos in areas which are controlled and not accessible to the general public nor the overwhelming majority of our employees.
Our priority is to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the group of our staff who may potentially have experienced exposure to asbestos-containing materials. We are in the process of notifying individuals within that group and they will have full access to specialist screening and full occupational health input.”
In a landmark case in 1998, the then-named Camden Islington Mental Health Trust was ordered to pay a £1million settlement to a consultant who died from mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer that a coroner’s inquest said had been caused by exposure to asbestos.