Latest reports indicate that the presence of asbestos in school and other public / civic buildings is more widespread in some regions of the country than first thought.

Previous estimates suggest that around three quarters of all schools across Britain still contain significant amounts of asbestos, and in specific areas of Manchester and Wales, the figure could be as high as 90 per cent.

North East England

In the North East of England, it has been recently revealed that as many as 65 per cent of schools in Sunderland contained asbestos while a number of “tourist attractions” on Wearside are among 37 council-owned buildings entered on the Asbestos Risk Register.

Scotland

In Scotland, a recent report claimed that 93 per cent of schools in Edinburgh built before 2000 contain asbestos in the walls, ceilings or floors. While estimated percentage figures for the amount of asbestos to be found in schools across Scottish counties range from 62 per cent ( Falkirk) to Fife ( 86 per cent), in East Ayrshire, there are 44 secondary, primary and nursery schools containing combinations of brown, blue and white asbestos.

Wales

Following the discovery of ten times the accepted safe level of airborne asbestos particles in a boiler room at Cwmcarn High School, Caerphilly, Wales, in 2012, an immediate national audit of asbestos levels in all schools was called for by Education Minister, Leighton Andrews.

In addition, a “Right to Know: Asbestos in Schools in Wales” campaign has been set up, which calls for a national online schools asbestos database to be established, which provides parents across Wales access to an online database to check whether asbestos is present in a school, and a management plan is in place.

As a result – and following Monmouthshire council declared support in November 2012 – Torfaen Council, in Mid Wales has just published a list of 32 school buildings from a total of 39, which were found to contain asbestos materials.

Growing asbestos awareness to the deadly health risks from the 1970s onwards eventually led to the use of the most dangerous brown and blue asbestos fibre types to being banned in the mid 1980s. Yet many public buildings, such as hospitals, schools, colleges and nurseries were still being constructed or renovated using white asbestos fibres in the building materials over the following decades.

Imports of white asbestos were stopped in 1999 but there exists today a large number of schools and other public or buildings containing deteriorating asbestos either hidden or inadequately managed which still pose a potential health risk.

Once asbestos fibres are inhaled they stay permanently embedded within the lung linings eventually leading to asbestosis diseases or the fatal, incurable mesothelioma cancer.

Parliamentary enquiry

A parliamentary enquiry into the continuing problem of “Asbestos In Schools” held in March 2013, discussed the lack of asbestos awareness and training, which had led to “a failure by schools to manage their asbestos properly.” According to the Medical Research Council “it is not unreasonable to assume that the entire school population has been exposed to asbestos in school buildings”.

Previously, the Asbestos in Schools (AiS) group have drawn urgent attention to at least 100 asbestos–related fatalities between 2001 and 2005, which affected all school occupants from teachers and pupils to childcare assistants, school caretakers, secretaries, cooks and cleaners, etc.

Between November 2010 and June 2011, compliance checks conducted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that around 17 per cent of those schools surveyed were unable to produce and show inspectors asbestos management plans or neglected to provide adequate staff training.

Across the UK more than 1.8 million people are annually exposed to asbestos with at least 2,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed every year (HSE).