The discovery of asbestos at a primary school in Selby, North Yorkshire follows the separate reporting of the deaths of a former Derbyshire school teacher and a retired West Midlands school cook from the fatal and incurable mesothelioma cancer.

They are the latest events in an unending human tragedy that has resulted from the presence of asbestos containing materials (ACMs) in schools across Britain since the post WW2 period of reconstruction. Asbestos is no longer the elephant in the room.

Indeed, the Government is repeatedly called upon to address the issues of asbestos risk and management. At the start of September, a government fund – The Risk Protection Arrangement (RPA) – was launched to provide asbestos risk cover for pupils in free schools and academies as insurance companies believe the risk to be ‘uninsurable’ and have excluded asbestos cover from commercial policies.

“Tens of thousands of schoolchildren at risk”

During a debate held in the House of Commons in February 2012,the issue of “tens of thousands of schoolchildren and teachers “being unaware they were at daily risk of asbestos exposure” was raised and a House of Commons ‘All Party Parliamentary Group’ report noted that, “over 140 school teachers have died from mesothelioma in the past ten years”,

In response a steering group of local authorities, governors, asbestos experts and union representatives regularly met DfE officials to discuss effective asbestos management in schools. However, as a result of government budget cuts, exactly 12 months on in February 2013, it was proposed to put the policy work on a “care and maintenance” basis only and a call for effective management in closing down the steering group. The action was taken despite 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, even though a national audit of asbestos levels in all schools was immediately ordered.

Also in 2013, evidence given to the Education Select Committee estimated that between 200 and 300 people will die each year of mesothelioma in Britain because of their asbestos exposure experienced as a child at school in the 1960 and 1970s. Over a twenty year period that means that between 4,000 and 6,000 former pupils could die.”

75 per cent of schools likely to contain asbestos

Asbestos awareness to the potential long term health risks in 2014 may bear little resemblance to the lack of safety information available to many of Britain’s workers in both blue and white collar jobs throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Nevertheless, the asbestos problem continues to pose a significant health risk today.

Between 1945 and 1975, around 6,000 of the 13,000 schools – more than four in ten built in England and Wales – used insulating materials made from asbestos fibres often concealed in the walls, ceilings and pillars. A further 1,400 schools were constructed using large quantities of asbestos in areas such as ceilings, partition walls, heaters, water tanks, pipes and window surrounds.

Forty years on and recent estimates suggest that of some 28,950 schools across the UK, at least 75 per cent are likely to still contain significant amounts of asbestos. As many as 65 per cent of schools in Sunderland are thought to contain asbestos and in areas of Manchester and Wales, the figure could be as high as 90 per cent.

In Greater Manchester alone, at least 1,600 of the region’s local authority buildings – including 700 schools – still contain asbestos materials. Mesothelioma fatalities in the region have also been reported to have dramatically risen by 500 per cent in the last 30 years, and predicted to continue until 2020.

Lack of asbestos management plan

In the latest HSE asbestos management inspection (April 2013 – January 2014) of a selected random sample of 153 non-local authority schools, it was found that more than four in ten lacked “a comprehensive system in place to ensure that anyone who may disturb asbestos was told of its presence”. Nearly one in four lacked any form of asbestos management plan, and 15 per cent did not possess any asbestos management survey or failed to keep their records up to date.

The number of schools and other public buildings containing deteriorating asbestos either hidden or inadequately managed are, nevertheless, largely unknown and 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.

In 2013, the Medical Research Council suggested that “it is not unreasonable to assume that the entire school population has been exposed to asbestos in school buildings.”