Hardly a week passes without another set of shocking figures pointing out the high number of schools containing asbestos in a particular local authority area. It’s now estimated that between 75 and 80 per cent of 33,600 schools across Britain contain either hidden or inadequately managed asbestos insulating materials.
A Freedom of Information Act request recently revealed that more than 200 Derbyshire schools contained asbestos and the local council faces seven asbestosis claims from school staff and ex-pupils.
Whenever mesothelioma tragically claims the life of a teacher or school worker, asbestos awareness breaks out in the local press. The news is often accompanied by victim support groups urgently calling for government action to remove every last trace of the deadly substance from public buildings. It’s a plea that has been repeatedly made yet the “national scandal” of asbestos in schools remains, in every sense of the word, unmoved.
Teachers could be breathing in raised levels of asbestos dust seven hours per day
In 2011 the government announced that asbestos inspections in so-called “low risk” workplaces would be halted. As a result, local authority schools, were classified as low risk despite the possibility that teachers and pupils could be breathing in raised levels of asbestos dust for six or seven hours per day.
The human consequences of building or renovating just over 45 per cent of schools between 1945 and 1975 with the deadly insulation are also regularly reported. The latest victim of asbestos-related mesothelioma is a retired Scottish school cleaner who worked in a secondary school for over 20 years. As is often the case, an investigation is required to determine if asbestos was disturbed or any renovations carried out during the two decades that the cleaner was working at the school.
The problem of asbestos in schools in Scotland may even be more critical than anywhere else in the country. It has been recently reported that more than 93 per cent of schools in Edinburgh built before 2000 contain asbestos in the walls, ceilings or floors. Schools in Scottish counties, such as Fife, Dumfries & Galloway and Falkirk could contain up to 86 per cent of asbestos.
100 asbestos–related fatalities in just a five year period
In Spring 2016, a primary teacher of thirty years from Buckinghamshire was another victim of mesothelioma, which triggered urgent calls and petitions for the removal of asbestos in the next 10 to 12 years.
At least 100 asbestos–related fatalities have been previously reported in just a five year period, which affected all school occupants from teachers and pupils to childcare assistants, school caretakers, secretaries, cooks and cleaners, (Asbestos in Schools – AiS). Since 1980, a total of 291 school teachers have fallen victim to the deadly disease and over 60 per cent of the deaths (177) have occurred since 2001, alone (Health and Safety Executive).
So the question remains – what is the government response to the calls for asbestos removal and do they have a plan of action?
“… Entire school population has been exposed to asbestos…”
In 2012, a House of Commons ‘All Party Parliamentary Group’ (APPG) produced a booklet – “Asbestos in Schools – the Need for Action.” The 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.”
By early 2014, an All Party Parliamentary Group issued an updated proposal from two years earlier to urgently deal with the continuing problem of asbestos in schools. Included in their recommendations was a long term programme for the phased removal of asbestos from all school premises. Priority was to be given to those schools where the asbestos is in the most dangerous or damaged condition.
‘Asbestos in schools’ policy lack of any real understanding
However, in 2015 the Department for Education published its long-awaited ‘asbestos in schools’ policy review, which appeared to do little more than acknowledge the existence of asbestos, mistakenly labelled ‘low-risk’. More disappointing still was the apparent lack shown of any real understanding and insight into the extent of the problem beyond a few “constructive proposals”, such as improving asbestos awareness, and providing guidance and training for school staff.
Nowhere was there any long-term strategies proposed to remove asbestos from schools and it seems that the official government policy remains that, “ … if asbestos is in good condition and not likely to be disturbed, it is safer to leave it in place and manage it than attempt to remove”.
The lack of action has to be seen against the scale of the problem and the ongoing potential health risks. In the north of England, it has been estimated that as many as 65 per cent of schools in Sunderland contain asbestos. According to figures released by Lancashire Council, across the entire region more 570 of the county’s 617 schools contain asbestos, and in as many as 42 schools in Burnley.
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.