Many teachers and pupils could be at risk of asbestos exposure after new figures showed the substance is present in more than 900 schools in Wales.
According to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by BBC Wales, 903 schools in Wales contained asbestos. But since four councils didn’t answer the BBC’s FOI request, the actual number could be higher.
The issue is partly down to inconsistent monitoring of asbestos in schools, as the BBC found that while many councils inspect buildings regularly, some haven’t carried out asbestos checks for up to ten years.
While the issue of asbestos in schools in Wales has been on the radar for several years now, it’s very worrying that some asbestos surveys are years out of date. The regulations require local authorities to do regular surveys by law.
Staff and Students May Be Breathing in Harmful Dust
The answer isn’t always to remove the asbestos, as sometimes it can be made safe where it is and sealed and properly labelled so that it doesn’t get disturbed accidentally.
But out-of-date surveys mean that the state of the asbestos hasn’t been checked for a long time. This runs the risk that it may have been damaged or disturbed since the last survey, releasing dangerous dust into the air that staff and students are breathing in.
Progress on the issue of asbestos in schools has been very slow and the Covid-19 pandemic has slowed progress even further, as local authorities have had to spend a lot of their budgets on other things. This is very concerning given the danger posed by inhaling asbestos dust, which can cause terrible diseases including lung cancer and mesothelioma.
The Welsh government has responded to the BBC’s findings by saying it’s working to support good practice in managing asbestos in schools.
A spokeswoman added that it also provides guidance to local authorities to help them “fulfil their responsibilities of managing, monitoring and, if necessary, removing asbestos from their buildings”.
But some unions have warned for the issue to be deal with urgently, including the GMB. Mike Payne, senior organiser at the union, warned that some school workers had died after being exposed to harmful asbestos fibres, and that a phased programme to rid public buildings of the substance needs to be put in place “as quickly as possible”.
“It will cost a lot of money, but how many lives have got to be lost,” he said.
“Mesothelioma is a death sentence. We need to find out where the asbestos is, and more importantly, what state it's in."
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