The risk of exposure to asbestos in schools is an issue that is not going to go away anytime soon. Especially when building contractors fail to carry out the necessary procedures for asbestos risk assessment to prevent the release of the deadly fibre dust.
Under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006, refurbishment and demolition surveys are required where refurbishment work or other work involving disturbing the fabric of the building is carried out.
A recent case of an apparent lack of asbestos awareness to the potential hazards of hidden asbestos saw a Staffordshire primary school forced to close for four months when builders who were dismantling a cupboard accidentally disturbed asbestos fibres.
The incident also highlights the issue of responsibility for implementation of an asbestos management plan in buildings with a known presence of asbestos. In particular, some 14,000 school premises, which were built between 1945 and 1975 using asbestos containing materials (ACMs), predominantly, white chrysotile asbestos insulating board (AIB).
Currently, the government is planning to transfer responsibility for all state-funded schools to the school governors and away from local authorities who are the most equipped with specialist knowledge and resources to help local authority schools safely contain asbestos.
A high level of concern has been expressed by both The Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) and the Asbestos in Schools Group (AIS) that school governors will simply not have the time or resources of the local authorities to adequately maintain an asbestos management plan, as set out in the Asbestos Regulations.
Any disturbance of asbestos material can cause fibres to be released into the air, which are easily inhaled. Once permanently embedded in the linings of the lungs, a long gestation period of between 15 to 50 years can elapse before the first signs of mesothelioma or other asbestosis symptoms emerge, often at an advanced stage. Life expectancy from a confirmed diagnosis is usually between 4 to 12 months.
Over a twenty-five year period, 1980 to 2005, the incurable mesothelioma cancer claimed a total of 272 lives from both school teachers and college lecturers as well as causing the deaths of school caretakers, cooks, cleaners and school secretaries.
According to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), more than 2,000 people are diagnosed annually in the UK with mesothelioma and at least a further 2,000 cases of lung cancer are directly related to asbestos exposure.