Around three quarters of all schools across Britain could still contain significant quantities of asbestos, and in specific areas of Manchester and Wales, the figure could be as high as 90 per cent.

The latest news of an ‘asbestos in schools’ exposure victim is, once again, a tragic reminder of the numbers of non-teaching staff who work in schools and have, unknowingly, inhaled the invisible, fibre dust particles.

According to the Asbestos in Schools group (AiS), it’s not only school teachers and college lecturers who were included in the 272 victims who died from mesothelioma between 1980 and 2005.

School workers are also at risk

From 2001 to 2005, school caretakers, secretaries, cooks and cleaners have also been recorded as victims of the 105 victims of mesothelioma as well as a number of childcare assistants and those working in higher education.

While acute concern for the safety of teachers and pupils is most properly the focus of attention, nevertheless, many other school workers are also at risk from asbestos exposure and the likelihood of contracting asbestosis diseases or the fatal, incurable mesothelioma cancer.

Caretakers and cleaners, who would be daily working in close contact with the fabric of a school building have long been at risk of directly breathing in the deadly mineral dust.

Cleaner “not warned” or protected

A recent case of a 65 year old female school cleaner and caretaker who worked at a South Wales school between 1980 and 1988 is a clear example of how even as recently as the 1980s, those who came into contact with asbestos dust were “not warned” or protected from the dangers of exposure.

Employed by predecessors of Gwent Council, one of the cleaner’s responsibilities was to maintain two heating systems at two different premises – one where a gas fire boiler and surrounding pipes were, “lagged with asbestos” and a coal fired boiler, also allegedly lagged with asbestos.

According to statements, the requirement was for the cleaning and sweeping up of asbestos dust and debris, which would be left on the two boiler room floors following maintenance works being carried out. As a result, “substantial amounts of asbestos dust and fibre” would be raised and made airborne “in the confined spaces …”, and which could easily, and ultimately, be fatally inhaled.

In the mid 1980s, the most toxic types of asbestos fibre types ( brown amosite and blue crocidolite) were banned from use as insulation, such as ceiling and wallboard, boiler and pipe lagging, and roofing tiles or sheets. However many schools, colleges and nurseries were still being constructed or renovated using white chrysotile asbestos fibres in building materials at least ten or more years later.

Asbestos hidden or not managed

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

As recently as March 2013, a parliamentary enquiry into the continuing problem of “Asbestos In Schools” discussed the lack of asbestos awareness and training, which had led to “a failure by schools to manage their asbestos properly.”