Under-reporting Of Asbestos Found In UK Schools


The Law Of… protecting children and school workers

A campaign run by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) as part of the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) have revealed that 86 percent of schools in the UK still have asbestos present in their buildings, putting a huge amount of teachers and students at risk of mesothelioma.

Helen Grady, Industrial Disease solicitor at Simpson Millar, comments on the news that the majority of schools across the UK still have asbestos present in their buildings, putting an excessive amount of teachers, support staff, and students at risk of asbestos related cancer in later life.

The revelation claimed by JUAC could impact over 7 million pupils. The worrying news calls for transparency between schools and workers, as well as parents of students attending the schools. The dangers of asbestos have been known since the 1930s, with key legislation in place in the 30s, 60s and onwards, leading to very stringent legislation from late 80s and now JUAC are calling for more to be done.

Why Does Asbestos Pose A Risk In Schools?

Asbestos was widely used as building material from the 1950s through to the mid-1980s. Its fire resistant properties made it a popular choice for fireproofing and insulation. Any building that was built before the year 2000 could contain asbestos, including: houses, factories, offices, hospitals and schools.

Asbestos in schools can be found in:

  • Fire doors
  • Pipe covering
  • Walls/partitions
  • Ceilings (including ceiling tiles)

Students and school workers are at risk when the asbestos is disturbed, which could happen at any time. Lucie Stephens, a campaigner for raising the awareness of asbestos in school, commented on the ease of disturbing asbestos in day to day life at a school in her interview with BBC Radio 4.

She said:

"one teacher spoke to me recently, describing a child in his class who was kicking a ball around, not being naughty, just being a bit boisterous, dislodged a ceiling tile and a big cloud of dust came down known to contain asbestos fibres."

What Is The Extent Of The Risk?

The biggest concern with asbestos in schools is the lack of awareness of the risks among workers and parents of students. Teachers, students and support staff are entering buildings with asbestos, unknowingly. Record numbers of teachers are dying from asbestos related cancer - 17 teachers die every year because of exposure to disturbed asbestos.

JUAC claims that this number is a conservative estimate.

Records do not include any other school workers, nor does it include the number of adults dying due to their exposure at school as a pupil. In addition, if a person is over the age of 75 and dies of mesothelioma, their death is not part of the statistics. It is clear that the true extent of the effects of asbestos is currently unknown. 

The risk is dramatically increased as not all head teachers and governors are aware of the risks that could be in their buildings. As a result, steps to reduce the risks are not being taken either.

What Is Being Done To Help Reduce The Risks?

Asbestos can be removed from school buildings, but constraints on funding for this makes it difficult.

The Department for Education (DfE) claim that asbestos can be controlled in situ, but Chris Keates, the general secretary of the teacher's union, NASWT emphasises that "Asbestos is lethal. The only safe asbestos is removed asbestos."

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Health and Safety report on asbestos in schools from 2012 recommended that, "The Government should set a programme for the phased removal of asbestos from all schools."

Campaigner Lucie Stephens, has blasted the report, saying "nothing's been done about that since that time."

Campaigning For The End Of Asbestos In Schools

Lucie Stephens has campaigned for more transparency when it comes to the risk of asbestos related cancer continuously since her mother's death of mesothelioma in June 2016.

She believes that parents and school workers have not been informed to the extent that is necessary to protect them from asbestos. She has fought to raise the awareness of asbestos in schools via Freedom of Information requests to all local authorities. She has acquired lists of all primary schools containing asbestos, but is still awaiting replies from many local authorities.  

Lucy runs a petition calling for the government to introduce and implement a policy of phased removal of all asbestos from schools to be completed by 2028. The petition currently has over 11,000 signatures.

Most recently, Lucie has agreed to speak at the National Conference for Asbestos in schools: revealing the hidden killer which takes place in July 2017.

Helen commented:

"The government has had 5 years to ponder the advice put together by the All Party Parliamentary Group and they have done nothing. It is incredibly disappointing."

"We don't know how many deaths have occurred needlessly as a result of asbestos in schools because of the refusal to include support staff, teachers over 75, and adults who have died from mesothelioma because of exposure as a pupil. More open discussions need to happen and the survey documents that are so consistently hidden need to be available for all to see. It is a simple measure to take."

"The true number of deaths is estimated to be 5,500 a year. This is a huge number of people who have been failed consistently over many years. The government has to act now. The gradual reduction of asbestos in schools around the country is a good starting point, but this is a slow process and will take a significant amount of time. In the meantime, more effort into raising the awareness of the risks of asbestos is needed from all involved parties."  

"It would be very easy for schools to display stickers where asbestos can be found, making sure that everyone is aware of the areas of danger and as a result, keeping everyone safer."

"It's imperative that something is done to help the vulnerable who are at risk of mesothelioma and sadly, schools are not the only places of issue. Hospitals also contain high amounts of asbestos and a similar focus should be spent on them as well."

"I have supported Lucie Stephens wholeheartedly since working on her mother's case and will continue to do so until the government take the threat of asbestos more seriously."

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