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Asbestos exposure in schools – a family’s story

You couldn’t fail to be moved when listening to Jenny Murray’s interview with Lucy Stephens, daughter of Sue Stephens, who sadly died aged 68 in June this year as a result of developing malignant mesothelioma. Mrs Stephens had worked as a teacher for 30 years in Buckinghamshire, before retiring in 2008.

Mesothelioma is a fatal form of cancer caused by asbestos exposure. It generally arises in the lining of the lungs but can affect other organs. The illness has a long latency period before symptoms become obvious.

At the inquest into Mrs Stephen’s death, the Greater Devon Coroner heard that she had made a statement in life whereby she recalled construction work being undertaken at a school in which she worked and that during the works, asbestos was removed by builders while lessons went on in classrooms from the 1990s onwards. In addition, she used to staple her pupils’ work to the classroom walls and, as the fabric of the classroom walls contained asbestos, she was exposed to asbestos dust each time she did this.

Prior to her mum’s death, Lucy launched a petition calling on the Government to take action to compel the removal of asbestos from Britain’s schools from 2028, thereby hopefully, ending the ongoing threat to teachers like her mum but also, to school pupils and others working in schools where asbestos is present.

She made the point in the interview that this illness is entirely avoidable, which makes her loss so hard to bear.

Jenny Murray, presenter of Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour asked the Department for Education for a response. They said the safety of pupils and teachers is of prime importance and stressed how much money they intend spending on schools in the coming financial year. Luckily, Lucy was able to respond that the sum quoted is the Department’s entire budget for schools as a whole and is not allocated to the management of asbestos in schools, contrary to the impression listeners might otherwise have been given.

Lucy is determined that no other family should have to go through what theirs did. There are thousands who have already confirmed their support for her petition. Please sign it online, if you haven’t already.

When we act together, change can happen.