The human tragedy of teachers or former pupils who fall victim to exposure to asbestos, still present in many of Britain’s schools, continues to make sombre headlines. Not least, because the teachers can often be aged in their 60s when diagnosed with mesothelioma. In an increasing number of cases, exposure occurred in the years after the first asbestos ban was introduced in the mid 1980s.

In the most recent case, a female teacher from Greater Merseyside was diagnosed with the incurable cancer of the lung linings, just in her early 60s. She believed that asbestos dust was inhaled while working at a high school, from the early 1980s until 2000. Following diagnosis, she began to recall that the classrooms were “dusty” but said no advice was given on taking precautions against breathing in any possible toxic particles.

In a previous, almost identical case, a female college lecturer, also lost her life to mesothelioma aged just 60 years old. Her statement was read out at the inquest, which describes working in “prefab” classrooms constructed from ‘dilapidated’ asbestos insulation board. Another female teacher who succumbed to mesothelioma, once again at the age of 60, remembers the asbestos dust on the surface of the walls when hanging up examples of her pupils’ work.

19 teachers, on average, die every year from mesothelioma

In 2015, a detailed analysis of local authority schools reported that as many as 87 per cent contained asbestos. It is often stated that more than three quarters of schools across the UK still contain significant amounts of asbestos, which are often improperly managed. In 2012, a House of Commons report, noted that, ‘over 140 school teachers have died from mesothelioma in the past ten years”, and called for urgent action.

In November 2014, a Freedom of Information request made the shocking discovery that 19 teachers, on average, die every year from mesothelioma or related lung cancers caused by asbestos exposure. In the same year, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) revealed that females now account for 1 in 6 of mesothelioma deaths ( HSE Annual Report, Great Britain, 2014).

Since 1980 there have been more than 406 teacher deaths from asbestos-related diseases, according to the latest figures from Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC). The so-called “ticking time bomb” has long ignited deep concern. Now the rise of female teacher mortality from mesothelioma aged in their 60s contrasts with the average fatality for males with mesothelioma of around 75 and above.

DfE advise not to disturb asbestos

In July of this year, the JUAC held the first ever Asbestos in Schools conference in Birmingham to focus urgent attention on the long standing issue of asbestos within UK schools. Attending were school governors, local authority official, campaigners, and delegates from Europe. Speakers present from the Department for Education (DfE) did little more than repeat the advice from their 2015 ‘asbestos in schools’ policy review which simply advised 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”.

But leaving in place, requires constant on-site monitoring, management and training to prevent the risk of airborne dust as the materials age. There have been problems with implementing asbestos management plans in schools. Between April 2013 and January 2014, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that nearly two in five of schools responsible for their own maintenance had “not trained their maintenance personnel.”

In one survey of school teachers, more than four in ten (44 per cent) claimed that they had not been informed whether their school contains asbestos. While nearly a half of respondents (46 per cent) did know that asbestos was present in their school nearly all (40 per cent) went on to say that they had not been told where it was located. Of those who were aware of the presence of asbestos, more than one in three also claimed an incident had occurred, which may have led to exposure but fewer than two in ten had seen a copy of their school’s asbestos management plan.

Government asked why it “continues to ignore this issue”

In July 2017 Rachel Reeves, Chair of the Parliamentary Asbestos in Schools Group, said that “there is an undeniable problem with asbestos in schools. It’s not going to simply disappear, the lives of staff, pupils and others are being put at risk” going on to ask “why the Government continues to ignore this issue”. The MP for Leeds West urges government action in the form of a “phased removal” alongside “centrally funded, mandatory audits in every school built before 1999.”

However, there was a call two years ago for government action over asbestos. In 2015, The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health released a new report, which also emphasised the need to introduce comprehensive measures for a planned removal of all asbestos still remaining in every property in Britain by 2035.

Meanwhile the deaths of female teachers from asbestos exposure continues year after year. There are now more than 400 female deaths from mesothelioma each year, say the HSE, and research has also revealed a threefold increase in the overall female death-rate of those aged below 65 since 1970.