Councils across England have paid out at least £10 million in compensation to people who developed an asbestos-related illness because of exposure to the deadly material in school buildings.
Figures obtained by BBC News show that in the past decade a total of 32 councils have settled claims from former teachers, school staff and pupils.
The National Union of Teachers (NUT) has said that up to 300 adults die each year because of exposure to asbestos dust and fibres while at school.
The Government has previously said that it will be investing £23 billion to improve school buildings, but campaigners are warning that the presence of asbestos in schools continues to put pupils’ lives at risk.
Lucie Stephens, whose mother sadly passed away in 2015 from mesothelioma caused by her exposure to asbestos dust and fibres while she was a primary school teacher, has been campaigning for the removal of asbestos from schools.
“My mum Sue was a teacher for 30 years and her life was cut short because of this horrible material,” Lucie said.
“As she was dying she was really angry and concerned about the 900 children that she’d taught during her career. If my mum has been exposed to this deadly substance, how many of those children will have been exposed?”
Through the Freedom of Information Act, BBC Yorkshire obtained figures from 135 councils in England that show there are at least 12,600 council run schools where asbestos is known to be present. It is thought that the actual number of schools that contain asbestos is likely to be much higher, as many schools have become academies and are therefore not included in the figures. It is also widely accepted that any school building to have been built before the year 2000 is likely to contain some form of asbestos.
It has also been found that, in the last 5 years, local authorities have recorded 99 instances of significant asbestos disturbances, where people have been put into danger because of potential exposure to asbestos dust and fibres.
The investigation carried out by the BBC also discovered that there is no uniform approach to monitoring the presence of asbestos in schools throughout England. Of those that had responded to the BBC’s Freedom of Information request, 13 councils said that they held no information about which schools in the area contained the hazardous substance. 10 councils also refused to disclose any information about the number of asbestos cases it had settled; meaning that it is likely more that £10 million has been paid out in compensation to the victims.
Rachel Reeves MP, chair of the Asbestos in Schools group, said: “This is a ticking time bomb, because very few teachers and parents know that there is asbestos in schools. The very least we should do is make sure that this information is available to them.”
The NUT has said: “The continuing presence of asbestos in our schools is a scandal, especially as all of it is now old, and much of it deteriorating.
“Around 86% of schools contain asbestos and deaths from mesothelioma are increasing. In 2013, 17 teachers died of mesothelioma. The total number of support staff deaths is still not known.
“Of even greater concern, particularly to parents, is that their children are at risk of developing mesothelioma (and other asbestos-related diseases) later in life, because of exposure to asbestos at school. It is estimated that 200 – 300 former pupils are dying each year as adults because of exposure at school.”
It was also found that at least 224 teachers have died from mesothelioma alone between 2003 and 20012, and the figure of other asbestos-related deaths of teachers and school workers could be much, much higher.
Where can asbestos be found?
Asbestos was widely used in the building industry in the 1960s and 1970s but it was subsequently banned in the UK in 1999. The ban came after the link was established between asbestos and a number of different lung diseases, including mesothelioma, lung cancer, pleural thickening and asbestosis.
It is widely known that asbestos is still found in a lot of UK homes and buildings built in the ‘60s and ‘70s. People should avoid disturbing it and employ authorised professionals to remove it.
National health and safety officer Ian Watkinson stated that the numbers of schools and other buildings which still contained asbestos shows “a scandal on a local and national scale.” Watkinson went on to say: “Parents don’t know, nor do teachers, and most of it is not being managed properly. Children, teachers and other school workers are being needlessly exposed to deadly asbestos fibres on a daily basis.”
Protect our children
Lucie Stephens has set up a petition in memory of her mother, called Protect our children and teachers from asbestos exposure at school.
The aim of her campaign is to enlighten parents who have been kept in the dark about the potential dangers their children could be facing from asbestos exposure at school, as well as to try and push the Government to introduce and implement a policy for the removal of all asbestos from schools
MPs had recommended this back in 2012, but no further action has yet been taken.