Four in five of all schools in the Lancashire borough of Hyndburn contain asbestos, according to a local news report based on data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The local authority in Accrington, have assured the community that there is no threat to pupils and teaching staff, stating that is “safer to leave it where it is” rather than attempt to remove the materials.

The Freedom of Information figures for the Hyndburn area show that 34 of the 42 state-run primary and secondary schools in the borough contain asbestos materials and only eight are asbestos-free. The County Council acknowledge most of Lancashire’s older schools contain some asbestos but where present the condition of the materials is inspected regularly, according to Asbestos Regulations and the Health and Safety Executive, and there is “no policy” to clear buildings of the materials or “any requirement to do so.”.

However, previously released figures show that across the entire region more than 570 of the county’s 617 schools – more than 90 per cent – contain asbestos. In Burnley, as many as 42 schools have been found to contain asbestos containing materials.

Ever-present danger

Asbestos awareness and the ever-present danger still to be found in an estimated half a million buildings across England and Wales were once again highlighted at a London conference to mark Mesothelioma Action Day on the 3rd July. And once again a call was made on the government to create new legislation for the safe, planned removal of all asbestos still in place in all premises. There may be a long wait.

A long-delayed Department of Education review into the condition of Britain’s school buildings, which was completed in 2013 was finally published in March this year. Unfortunately, the review does little more than acknowledge the existence of so-called ‘low-risk’ asbestos in schools.

At the same time that the department appears to show a lack of real understanding or in-depth knowledge into the extent of the problem, the report also only seems able to suggest guidance and training for school staff with a focus on ‘transparency and accountability of school duty holders.’ The review has been also criticised for not including “up-to-date information” on the widespread levels of asbestos.

Significant quantities

Between 1945 and 1975, more than four in ten schools built in England and Wales used insulating materials made from asbestos fibres. More than four decades later on and recent estimates suggest that three quarters of the 28,950 schools across the UK are likely to still contain significant quantities 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. One report has also claimed that 93 per cent of schools in Edinburgh built before 2000 contain asbestos in the walls, ceilings or floors.

There is no doubt that the government faces a huge task in tackling the undeniable problem of huge amounts of asbestos still present in schools and the potential health risk. At the same time, it appears that it is widely accepted that the white asbestos type found is low risk and should not be disturbed.

Difference in fibre type

The reality is that white asbestos was only considered low risk when compared against the more toxic brown and blue asbestos types banned in the mid-1980s, which was followed by a ban on white asbestos use fifteen years later.

The evidence was originally based on the difference in fibre type and the ability of the body to eliminate the fibres from the affected tissues. The number of teacher and school worker deaths from malignant pleural mesothelioma compiled over the last thirty years also present stark evidence of the potential deadly health risks.

In 2012, the number of school teachers who died from mesothelioma had reached 22, up from 16 in 2011. The increase is also double the figure of 3 deaths in 1980, and since then a total of 291 school teachers have fallen victim to the deadly disease. Over 60 per cent of the deaths (177) have occurred since 2001, alone.

In 2013, evidence given to the Education Select Committee estimated that, “in Britain between 200 and 300 people will die each year of mesothelioma 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.”