The continuing risk from asbestos found in many schools around the UK was raised once again by recent news of further deaths from mesothelioma, believed to be caused by the presence of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) at two teaching institutions in the north of England.

Between 1980 and 2005, mesothelioma caused 272 deaths of both school teachers and college lecturers and is known to have claimed the lives of school caretakers, cooks, cleaners and school secretaries.

One recent court case and a second, separate coroner’s report reinforces asbestos awareness to the real life threatening dangers of asbestos exposure as opposed to the claims of a “low-level” risk. According to the Asbestos Victims Support Groups’ Forum UK, “There is no known safe level of exposure to asbestos. Arguments for a ‘safe’ threshold are everything to do with denying liability for compensation and nothing to do with protecting people”.

In the first case, Lincoln University was fined a total of nearly £ 22,759, including costs, when asbestos insulating board (AIB), some in a damaged condition, was found after the debris caused when attending to a broken door lock handle revealed the hidden presence of the deadly material.

Despite the ban on the most dangerous forms of asbestos in the mid-1980s, chrysotile white asbestos continued to be used in construction and building renovations right through the twentieth century until a final ban was imposed in 1999.

According to the Health & Safety Executive(HSE) asbestos surveys conducted over a number of years had uncovered asbestos-containing materials and related asbestos debris throughout the University buildings, yet no action had been taken for safe containment or disposal despite the possession of an asbestos management plan.

Disturbance of asbestos, often found to be in a worn, damaged or disintegrating condition will release dust fibres into the surrounding air. Once inhaled, the fibres stick permanently within the pleura( linings of the lungs) eventually causing asbestosis disease or the fatal cancerous tumours of mesothelioma. The long gestation period of up to 50 years often means asbestosis symptoms will not appear until a late stage in the spread of the disease and prognosis can be as short as 4 months.

In the second case, it was not a teaching staff member but a woman who worked as a cleaner at a college in Grimsby between 1984 and 2007, who was originally exposed to asbestos. According to the coroner’s report, the ” industrial-related disease”, of mesothelioma cancer was the cause of her death.

Asbestos had been mainly present in the ground floor area where the cleaning of classrooms, toilets and corridors took place as well as in six pre-fabricated huts also regularly cleaned. Between 1945 and 1975, over 14,000 schools had been quickly constructed in the UK, of which, at least 50 per cent were system-built with asbestos-containing materials.

The number of deaths from the incurable malignant cancer increased from 153 in 1968 to 2,249 in 2008 and over 2,000 diagnosed cases are recorded annually. It is predicted that asbestos exposure will continue to cause up to 5,000 deaths every year by 2015.