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Asbestos in schools

  • It is estimated that 86% of state schools contain asbestos.
  • The UK has the highest incidence of mesothelioma in the world but it is not a problem confined to former industrial workers.
  • Since 1980 over 290 school teachers have died from mesothelioma. It is not known how many others have died without making the link to their work.

The recent closure of a school in Blurton, Stoke on Trent because of the dangers of asbestos in the building highlights a problem that is likely to get worse.

Thousands of schools were built between 1950’s and 1980s, using Asbestos Containing Materials (ACMS), such as crocidolite and amosite as well as white asbestos insulating boards, all potentially liable to cause mesothelioma. Many of these buildings were built under the Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme (CLASP) formed in 1957 to enable a uniform, quick and cheap prefabricated school building system. Unfortunately the system provided for large quantities of asbestos to be used in their construction, in ceilings, partition walls, heaters, water tanks, pipes and window surrounds. It is estimated that there are over 3000 CLASP buildings still in existence. There were also other methods of system building in use for schools, again using asbestos products and around 6000 such schools were constructed between 1945 and 1975. In addition ACMS were used when schools were refurbished until the use of asbestos insulating board ceased in 1985.

However, shockingly the potential risks from the use of asbestos in schools was not unknown by the authorities. The Department of Education and Science sent out regular notices called Administrative Memorandum to education authorities around the country on a range of issues including warnings about asbestos.

Asbestos Warnings

The Administrative Memorandum (20/67) dated 18 July 1967 contained the following warnings:

“Exposure to even low concentrations of dust may be hazardous. Present evidence suggests that the association of mesothelioma with asbestos derived from other naturally occurring forms of asbestos than crocidolite is exceptional. In view of the uncertainty about the subject it would seem proper to eliminate the use of crocidolite and crocidolite products and reduce the use of all other forms of asbestos by seeking a substitute wherever possible.”

They even warned about low level exposure in science classes:

“Asbestos wool should be kept wet and not allowed to dry out; hard asbestos mats should be used in preference to soft ones … mats should be disposed of when they become frayed.”

The Administrative Memorandum (7/76) dated 2 July 1976 repeated the warning:

“In view of the continuing uncertainty about whether there is a level of dust inhalation below which there is no hazard, the ban on the use of crocidolite and crocidolite products, as outlined in AM 20/67, still holds and the risk of exposure to dust from all forms of asbestos should continue to be reduced by seeking substitutes wherever possible.”

“…Thus asbestos wool should not be used in science: soft asbestos mats should not be used in science… nor should asbestos cord, asbestos gloves or wire gauzes with asbestos centres be used.”

The Administrative Memorandum (3/86) dated 15 August 1986 stated:

“Inhalation of dust from any type of asbestos may result in a number of conditions including fibrosis of the lung (known as asbestosis), cancer of the lung, local thickening of the pleura and mesothelioma.”

“As there is no known threshold level for exposure to asbestos below which there is no risk, it is important always to take whatever steps are necessary to reduce exposure from any form of asbestos to the lowest reasonably practicable level. The aim should continue to be to prevent the inhalation of asbestos dust by pupils, students or staff.”

Further evidence of exposure

A recent report into asbestos management in Brent highlighted the story of Sarah Bowman a former pupil of two Brent schools, Braintcroft Primary School and William Gladstone School, who developed mesothelioma at the age of 40. The report details the way that pupils at the schools were exposed to asbestos from blue asbestos wall panels but also highlights the fact that pupils across the country are at risk because of the failure of the government to properly tackle this problem by adequate risk surveys to identify the way that asbestos can be disturbed at schools.

Mesothelioma has a long latency of around 40 years and the number of pupils who have died from exposure to asbestos at school is unknown. A study in the US suggests that for every teacher’s death nine children will die. On that basis, it is shocking to think that we will likely see an increase each year of former pupils diagnosed with mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos in their school.