Asbestos fears for schools in Wales lead to calls for tests


According to a BBC Wales investigation, there is no acceptable safe limit for exposure to asbestos in schools.

Asbestos in Schools - Contamination

In a survey of local authorities, the BBC Wales TV show 'Week In Week Out' found there could be asbestos in 1,514 (around 85%) of schools in Wales; a figure 10% higher than in England.

The investigation followed the removal in early October of 900 pupils from Cwmcarn High School in Caerphilly, where airborne asbestos dust was identified by contractors.

While the risk to students is believed low, most of the school's buildings are closed and teaching has been temporarily transferred to Ebbw Vale College.

The Education Minister, Leighton Andrews, has insisted that all schools report their asbestos levels. Declining to provide the programme with more detailed information, he said that before acting he would evaluate results.

According to Robin Howie, an independent asbestos consultant and former government adviser, monitoring for the material is presently inadequate and air testing should be conducted in all schools.

On examining the position at Cwmcarn, where brown asbestos fibres were found in certain buildings, Mr Howie said: "The local council says the fibre levels were between 0.003 and 0.008 fibres per millilitre."

"From those fibre levels we can look at the risks of those levels to 11 year olds over 5 years of developing mesothelioma."

Mr Howie added that the "acceptable level" of risk as defined by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is 1 per million per year. "That means the risk levels in the school from school's own figures is between 20 and 50 higher than the level of acceptable risk."

According to the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), monitoring asbestos in schools had to improve and air should be routinely tested.

"The challenge for the minister is to decide what test he's going to use to determine whether the teaching environment is safe," said Rex Phillips, the Wales organiser for NASUWT. "That is what the Cwmcarn situation has done."

The official advice from the HSE is that asbestos should not be dangerous provided it is in good condition and remains undisturbed.

However, the HSE told the BBC that there were no accepted safe levels of asbestos in schools, despite the occupational limits for exposure to workers. The HSE also confirmed that routine air testing for asbestos is not carried out.

Asbestos is known to cause serious lung diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma, a lung cancer variant which can take as much as 4 decades to develop but which usually kills within a year of diagnosis.

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