The control and management of asbestos known to be present in both private and public sector buildings, including over three quarters of all state schools in England and Wales, is under severe threat as the Government slash the budget of the Health and Safety Executive ( HSE ) by a swingeing 35 per cent.
Created by the Health and Safety at Work Act in 1974, the HSE is the national independent watchdog for work-related health, safety and illness, and acts in the public interest to reduce occupational death and serious injury in the nation’s workplaces. The HSE consistently run asbestos awareness programmes and carry out rigorous property inspections to instigate proper asbestos management plans in key public buildings such as schools and hospitals.
As a result of the cutbacks, workplace inspections, which previously were infrequent enough, are to be eliminated completely in the vast majority of cases. More alarming still is the scrapping of asbestos inspections in schools! There is now a real concern over the presence and future mismanagement of asbestos, often seen as ‘low risk’ but still a serious health hazard.
The recent death from an asbestosis disease of a Leamington school teacher in her 50s who taught in classrooms built with asbestos-containing materials in the 1950s, but now demolished, highlights the continuing rise in asbestos-related fatality.
Over 270 school teachers and college lecturers have died from the asbestos-related cancer, mesothelioma, in the period 1980 to 2005. In just four years ( 2001-2005) over 100 asbestos-related deaths recorded included teachers, childcare assistants, and those working in higher education.
In the years after 1945, it is known that some 14,000 schools were constructed, half of which, were system-built using materials made from amosite and chrysotile asbestos fibres.
Left untreated, asbestos fibres are released into the air and are easily inhaled. They remain permanently in the lung linings and can eventually cause tissue cells to form incurable cancerous tumours. The exceptionally long gestation period of up to 50 years often means that asbestosis symptoms only appear at the latter stages of the disease when a patient’s survival rate is often less than 6 months.
The HSE have previously emphasised the importance of properly managing asbestos, “ which if remains undamaged and not disturbed is not a cause for concern”. A recent Asbestos In Schools Report caused an All-Party Parliamentary group to bring Parliament’s attention once more to the “tens of thousands of schoolchildren and teachers” likely to be unaware of daily exposure to asbestos.
The Report revealed that over three quarters of state schools contained poorly maintained asbestos with background fibre levels 5 to 500 times higher than outdoor levels. It also stated that in the last five years, HSE inspections found asbestos management plans in a number of schools were not being undertaken or significantly lacking and “no central data on the extent, type and condition of asbestos in UK schools”.
Undoubtedly, the health risks from unmanaged asbestos as a result of the government cutbacks will be exacerbated and may even be reflected in the rising figures for diagnosed mesothelioma cases, currently running at 2,000 annually in the UK.