While asbestos awareness to the true extent of its insidious presence in schools, colleges and nurseries around Britain seems to gain greater exposure every day, will the health risks to pupils ever be truly eliminated and the deadly material permanently removed?
While previous studies increasingly warn that around three quarters of all schools across Britain are very likely to contain more asbestos than first estimated, a Freedom of Information request by the Warrington Guardian has recently revealed that,”72 out of 90 schools in Warrington, Cheshire, contain asbestos.”
Despite the use of the most dangerous brown and blue asbestos fibre types being banned in the mid 1980s, white ‘chrysotile’ asbestos fibres continued to be used in building materials, such as wallboard insulation, ceiling tiles and roofing sheets as reinforced insulation and fireproofing.
Imports of white asbestos were finally halted in 1999 but there exists today a large number of schools and other public buildings containing deteriorating asbestos either hidden or inadequately managed, which still pose a potential health risk. In particular, old school boiler rooms can still be found where ‘friable’ (disintegrating) asbestos cement and pipe insulation release invisible fibre dust particles into the atmosphere.
“Presence of asbestos in school buildings is not uncommon…”
According to a spokesman for Warrington Borough Council, “The presence of asbestos in school buildings is not uncommon and Warrington is no different to many other areas across the UK…”
The truth of this statement may be borne out by recent revelations that in the North East of England, as many as 65 per cent of schools in Sunderland contained asbestos.
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, the Torfaen Council, in Mid Wales published a list of 32 school buildings from a total of 39, which were found to contain asbestos materials. Meanwhile, 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 Warrington Borough Council state they “take the issue of asbestos seriously” and comply with HSE guidance to safely manage the presence of asbestos in their schools, a parliamentary enquiry held in March 2013, discussed the general lack of asbestos awareness and training around the country, which had led to “a failure by schools to manage their asbestos properly.”
University bedrooms contained asbestos…
A further Freedom of Information request made by the Guardian newspaper also brought to light the shocking revelation that, “At least 17,000 students slept in university bedrooms that contained asbestos last year.”
The findings reveal that 38 universities (more than 40 per cent) confirmed they provide “rooms for students containing asbestos”. While Cardiff University supplied around 1,500 student rooms containing asbestos, the University of Warwick was found to top the ‘asbestos’ list with 2,313 bedrooms.
In addition, several universities admit they do not divulge information on the existence of asbestos, which, they say is in the form of textured surface coating, known as “artex”, a popular and widely applied interior decorative feature in the 1970s.
“Entire school population has been exposed…”
The Medical Research Council have also said that “it is not unreasonable to assume that the entire school population has been exposed to asbestos in school buildings”.
Several spokesmen for the universities echo other organisations and the Department of Education itself with the often used statement that “If asbestos is not disturbed or damaged, then it is safer to leave it in situ, with strong systems in place to contain and monitor it.”
However, 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.
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.
It is also predicted that between 200 and 300 people could die every year of mesothelioma because of their asbestos exposure as children at school.