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True cost of asbestos in schools

More than 224 teachers have died of mesothelioma in the period between 2003 and 2012. We are now also seeing an increasing number of younger people diagnosed with mesothelioma and with no known occupational exposure. Sarah Bowman aged 49 was compensated when Brent Council settled her claim for mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos as a pupil at two schools in Brent. A 33 year old Devon woman is pursuing a claim that her mesothelioma was caused by asbestos exposure at school during maintenance works carried out.

Why is asbestos such a problem in our schools when the dangers were known about so long ago?

In 1965 the Department of Education sought the advice of the Chief Medical Officer of the Factories Inspectorate who warned of the dangers of asbestos, advised against the use of asbestos in schools generally and stressed that children were particularly vulnerable to exposure.

The asbestos industry sought to quell any disquiet about the use of their product writing to the Secretary of State for Education in relation to the growing concern over the use of asbestos: “..anxiety is based on an unjustifiable exaggeration of the health hazards…there is no evidence whatsoever that the incorporation of asbestos in buildings has ever impaired the health of the occupants”. As happened all too often when given information or reassurance from this industry the government accepted what was said at face value.

The CLASP and system build for schools ensured that asbestos board remained the building material of choice in the programme responsible for over 6000 schools built in the country between the 1950’s and 1980’s. Many of them were constructed using amosite (brown asbestos) board. This was also installed during refurbishment and it is estimated that 75% – 85% of schools still contain asbestos materials.

In 1979 the government’s Advisory Committee on Asbestos again highlighted the greater risks that children faced from asbestos exposure but again nothing was done to prevent or control the use of asbestos as a building material in schools.

The Department of Education warning to education authorities in 1986 went unheeded: 

“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.”

In 1997 the Department for Education advised the schools minister against assessing the scale of any risk from asbestos in schools:

“A central government initiative to assess the risks to teachers and pupils would not only be inappropriate, given where the statutory responsibility lies, but would also lead to pressure for centrally funded initiatives to remove all asbestos and for other aspects of building work. That would be extremely expensive, as well as risky and disruptive for the schools concerned.”

A report by the Medical Research Council also in 1997 stated:

“Children attending schools built prior to 1975 are likely to inhale around 3,000,000 respirable asbestos fibres…Exposure to asbestos in school may therefore constitute a significant part of total exposure”

A 2 year countrywide Department of Education audit of the condition of school buildings was carried out and completed in 2015 but unbelievably any assessment of asbestos whether extent, type or condition was specifically excluded from the audit, despite the fact that removal of asbestos remains the most expensive item of maintenance cost.

The HSE has advised that schools are low risk and advocated a policy of containment and management, despite an absence of inspections or surveys. It is this reassurance that local authorities have used as a blanket to wrap around their denial that there is a problem.

Reference to “safe” limits is a misnomer in relation to asbestos and mesothelioma – the term refers to action levels to consider respiratory protection for workers or prosecution by the HSE. It is known that young people are more susceptible to develop mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos. It is known that there is no lower level of exposure from which there is no risk of mesothelioma.

Asbestos materials used in system build and CLASP buildings can have been in place for up to 60 years. These materials deteriorate over time and are open to abuse from workmen and children alike. In many cases the asbestos material is not in a perfect, encapsulated condition and so is neither contained nor managed.

A test carried out by the Inner London Education Authority in 1987 found that slamming a door, with an asbestos frame in a system build school, 5 times resulted in measurements of airborne asbestos fibres 33 times higher than the “safe” level set by the HSE. Similar dispersions of fibres were caused by kicking or knocking against asbestos wall panels.

Warm air cabinets developed in the 1950s and used as a system of heating in many system build schools were usually lined with asbestos board and fitted with asbestos board internal baffles. Many of the boards used in earlier versions contained amosite. In tests carried out in 2012 it was discovered that such heaters could produce enough emitted fibres for each occupant of a classroom to inhale 4000 fibres an hour.

The dispute over whether asbestos should be eradicated from schools continues as does the row over who should foot the bill. The one certainty is that the asbestos still in place will continue to deteriorate each year at a cost of the risk to health of school pupils and staff.