Asbestos in Schools: New Figures Highlight Scale of Problem


The Law Of… Ensuring Our Schools Are Safe

Following revelations from a Freedom of Information campaign about the number of schools that contained dormant asbestos earlier this year, new data has once again highlighted the prevalence of the toxic material in our schools.

Due to the widespread use of asbestos in building materials before the UK implemented a blanket ban on its usage in 1999 it is possible that most school buildings built before this date will include the material.

Lucie Stephens, the daughter of Susan Stephens – a school teacher who passed away from mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos during her time in the classroom – has submitted over 200 Freedom of Information requests to try and gather information on the presence and condition of asbestos in schools across the country.

Alongside this the Government have published a report into the management of asbestos in schools, which seeks to establish the amount, condition, and response to asbestos in schools across the country.

Industrial Disease Partner Helen Grady, who is representing the family of Susan Stephens, uses the information in the Government's report and the figures uncovered by Lucie's tireless campaigning to answer some of the common asbestos questions concerned parents or teachers should be asking about their school buildings.

How Widespread Is Asbestos In Schools?

It is often difficult to find conclusive data on the presence of asbestos in schools as many do not reply to requests for information and some, namely academies, do not have to release information on the presence of asbestos in school buildings.

Previous data from the Department for Education (DfE) claim that over 75% of school buildings contain asbestos, however they put this figure at 70% in 2008 and the recent asbestos management report by the Education Funding Agency placed the figure at closer to 85% - this higher figure is backed by asbestos campaigners who claim in one study to have found asbestos to have been present in 86% of schools.

Looking at some of our previous school exposure cases we have seen multiple sources of exposure for those in schools, including:

  • Pupils putting their hands through holes in Asbestos Insulation Boards (AIBs) and grabbing asbestos lagged pipes
  • Pupils swinging on asbestos lagged pipes or walking through boiler rooms
  • Specialist asbestos removal teams leaving asbestos dust on tables and chairs and carrying dusty asbestos bags through staffrooms

One pupil that we've had contact with for a previous school asbestos case recalls having a canteen in the school's basement with the lunch queue passing by the school's boiler. The asbestos lagging from the boiler would end up as chalky dust on their jackets, with the food and kitchen staff also likely exposed to asbestos dust from the misplaced boiler.

In another recent case we saw indirect asbestos exposure from a man who worked for Blacknell Buildings in the 1970s, where a lot of asbestos-containing terrapin classrooms were built. The worker's wife sadly died of mesothelioma after it is suspected that he brought asbestos dust back in to his home from work.

These examples highlight that exposure is often unwitting and in many cases not recognised at the time, which only strengthens calls for this material to be removed from our schools altogether.

This disparity of information highlights a concerning trend that seems to suggest that it's just not known how widespread this issue really is, all we can say with absolute certainty is that the vast majority of schools contain asbestos.

Are Schools Safely Managing Their Asbestos?

In their guidance on asbestos the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) claim that dormant asbestos is not actually an issue and that if the material is in a good condition and is unlikely to be disturbed it can be left in place.

This approach may be applicable in certain workplaces where asbestos can be left in an area that does not have a high footfall and is unlikely to ever be disturbed, however it is a completely different story in small school classroom where teachers are pushing pins into walls and boisterous children are likely to knock into walls and other fittings.

The unique danger of asbestos in school classrooms is highlighted by recent findings by Lucie, who discovered that staff and pupils at various schools across the country have been exposed to asbestos on more than 90 separate occasions in the last five years.

Once again, this figure for exposure could be far higher as many local authorities and schools do not record data on incidents of exposure.

In one particularly worrying case, which made media headlines, pupils at a school in Sunderland had to be hosed down and de-dusted after wind weather disrupted ceiling tiles and caused dust to fall in a classroom known to contain asbestos.

Even the Government's own asbestos management in schools report highlights that some schools are not fulfilling their responsibility to properly manage asbestos, of the 4,646 they identified as containing asbestos only 30% had reviewed their asbestos management survey in the past 12 months and almost 20% did not have an Asbestos Management Plan, despite such a plan being required by law under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012.

How Can I Find Out If A School Contains Asbestos?

This all depends on whether your school is adhering to its requirements and has correct and up to date asbestos paperwork.

If you are concerned about the presence of asbestos at your child's school, or at the school that you work, you should get in touch with the Governors or the Head Teacher, both of whom should be able give details of the presence of asbestos or at the very least provide a copy of the school's asbestos survey, register, or management plan.

In recent interviews Simpson Millar has called on schools to ensure that the lifesaving information contained in asbestos surveys is correctly displayed and used at all times. For example, the use of warning stickers in areas that contain asbestos will warn teachers and school children to avoid these areas.

If asbestos warning stickers were implemented we may also see schools being more aware of water leaks, as water leaking onto asbestos can cause damage. Ultimately, if asbestos is being left in place in schools then it needs to be treated with extreme caution and those who use affected buildings should be aware of the material.

If asbestos is present you should be able to access further information, namely the location of the asbestos, the condition of the asbestos, and whether the asbestos has recently been disturbed.

Remember that the current regulations do not require schools to immediately act on dormant asbestos and just because some of the left over material is present in your child's classroom it does not necessarily mean they are at risk.

The crucial pieces of information you need to establish once you've found out if asbestos is present in your child's school is the condition of the asbestos, is it deteriorating and if so how likely is it that the material will be disturbed and cause a release of asbestos fibres into the air?

These are the questions that will be asked when asbestos surveys are undertaken and the material will only be removed if there's a high chance that fibres from the dormant asbestos could be disturbed and released into the classroom.

What Are The Dangers Of Dormant Asbestos In Schools?

Exposure to asbestos can cause serious health risks and is linked directly to a specific type of lung cancer, mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma, and other asbestos related illnesses – such as asbestosis – has a long latency period, meaning that diseases take a long time to develop after the initial asbestos exposure – in most cases patients fall ill with asbestos related illnesses decades after their exposure.

Due to the long latency period most sufferers of asbestos related illnesses are over the age of 60 – some data from the US suggests that those over the age of 85 have the highest incident rate of mesothelioma – however exposure at a young age can cause significant problems, as it is thought that the damage done by asbestos fibres is more prevalent amongst children who are still growing and developing.

Some statistics suggest that a 5-year old child exposed to asbestos is up to five times more likely to develop mesothelioma than someone exposed in their 30s. It is estimated that 200 to 300 of those who die from mesothelioma each year were exposed to asbestos as school children.

The danger is no less significant for teachers, with the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) estimating that 17 teachers are dying from mesothelioma every year, with many of these exposed to asbestos in the classroom – currently it is thought that the UK has the highest mesothelioma rate amongst teachers in the world.

The rate of mesothelioma deaths amongst teachers are increasing, 319 teachers have died from the disease since 1980, 205 of these have occurred since 2001.

Due to the seriousness of the very present dangers posed by asbestos, Lucie Stephens is running a petition that pushes for the phased removal of asbestos from our schools, thus ensuring that children and teachers are protected from asbestos exposure at school.

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