The risk of exposure to asbestos in schools is being reported again in the first weeks of January. Asbestos materials were “disturbed” at a school in the historical asbestos ‘hotspot’ of Medway, Kent. In a separate case, a teacher is bringing a claim for mesothelioma compensation against a local authority after working in a post-war, prefab classroom built with asbestos, between 1972 and 1982.

The historic dockyard town of Chatham and surrounding Medway area have long been known for recording one of the highest asbestosis disease and mesothelioma fatality rates nationwide. As recently as February 2012, the second highest mesothelioma fatality rate was found to be in the Medway area of the south east, including the towns of Rochester, Strood, Chatham, Gillingham and Rainham, where 104 deaths from mesothelioma were recorded between 2006 and 2012.

Traditionally, shipbuilders and dockyard workers were always the most vulnerable to diseases caused by the regular exposure to asbestos insulation materials used in ship construction, such as in the boiler room, bulkhead, hot water and exhaust pipe systems.

However, in the post war years, asbestos insulation was widely used across the construction industry, especially in public buildings, such as schools and many of the ‘pre-fab’ school buildings also quickly installed in the public sector.

School failed to complete a pre-works asbestos survey

It is estimated that between 1945 and 1975, around 45 per cent of the 1,400 schools that were built used light gauge steel frames and asbestos panel infill, which could be easily and cheaply built up to a maximum of four storeys. Large quantities of asbestos were incorporated in a variety of locations, such as ceilings, partition walls, heaters, water tanks, pipes and window surrounds. A large amount is also hidden in walls, ceiling voids and as column cladding behind metal casings.

The asbestos was only discovered at the Medway school during a refurbishment. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found that the building contractors failed to refer to the asbestos register, which had been kept on the location and condition of the materials. However, it was also discovered that the school Trust had also neglected its duties by failing to complete a pre-works asbestos survey, which meant they could not ensure the contractors would have the necessary asbestos information.

The court heard from a report that the risk of exposure to the small number of people on site at the time was “very low to insignificant”. The school trust pleaded guilty to a breach of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and was fined a total of £35,000 inc. costs.

It is widely considered by the medical community that any exposure should be known as “comparatively” low risk and still a potential hazard to health. The government has also said that white asbestos should be considered a Class 1 cancer-causing agent.

Teacher diagnosed with mesothelioma

The risk to teachers, school workers and pupils continues to raise urgent concern. Reports of former teachers diagnosed with fatal cancer of the lung linings while still only in their 50s or 60s has continued some thirty years after the first asbestos ban in the mid 1980s.

A teacher in their late 60s who took early retirement ten years earlier spent ten years working in a “pre-fab” built premises and saw asbestos starting to be removed from the school during the mid 1980s just prior to the first ban. Plans at the time to control and manage the asbestos, which it was believed would prevent exposure risk, had come too late for the teacher who was diagnosed with mesothelioma some thirty years after initial exposure.

It is estimated that as many as 8 in ten of all UK schools are likely to still contain significant quantities of asbestos. In some areas of the north of England, the amount could be even higher – around 9 in ten premises. Lancashire Council, recently reported that more than 570 of the region’s total of 617 schools contain asbestos. Teaching unions are currently calling for the complete removal of all asbestos from every school in the country as being the only safe solution, which will save future lives.

“Entire school population has been exposed to asbestos”

In 2012, a House of Commons ‘All Party Parliamentary Group’ report noted that, ‘Over 140 school teachers have died from mesothelioma in the past ten years”, highlighting the level of danger from asbestos in Britain’s schools, and calling for urgent action. 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”.

In the same year, 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.”