In recent weeks, there has been a staggering number of reports from various media sources that the deadly substance asbestos is believed to still be present in thousands of schools across the UK.
The National Asbestos Helpline has direct experience of helping teachers after they have been exposed to asbestos dust and fibres in schools.
Our most recent case concerned a retired school teacher who was unfortunately diagnosed with mesothelioma. In the vast majority of cases mesothelioma is caused by exposure to asbestos dust and fibres. It is an aggressive and terminal type of lung cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, which is called the pleura.
The teacher taught woodwork and metalwork, and worked in number of schools throughout his career. He was exposed to asbestos from a hearth that was used for heating products in his metalwork classes. The inside of the cabinet, which formed part of a double brazing hearth, was insulated with asbestos. From time to time the metal work teacher would have to brush the inside of the cabinet to clean it, and when he was doing this he released the harmful asbestos dust and fibres into the air, which he then breathed in. A claim was pursued against the relevant education authority and a settlement was achieved within a year.
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 if it does need to be removed. Worryingly asbestos is also present in many schools across the UK. An astonishing report made by the Lancashire Evening Post in March, 2015, found that at least 570 schools in central Lancashire alone still contain asbestos.
The NUT campaign
The National Union of Teachers (NUT) has been running a campaign for more than a year to tackle the dilemma of asbestos in schools across the country. The national health and safety officer Ian Watkinson stated that the figures show, “a scandal on a local and national scale”.
He further said: “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.”
Leaving asbestos in situ
Information from the Lancashire County Council shows that the highest number of schools to contain asbestos in the county is in Preston and Lancaster, each having 66 of them.
The county abides by the national policy towards asbestos, which means leaving asbestos in situ unless it becomes a problem.
Even the Health and Safety Executive says that the asbestos is “here, it’s endemic, it’s under control and if we monitor it it’s the safest policy.”
Removing all asbestos would cost billions of pounds, but many people believe a more rigorous approach should be taken to remove it, especially from our school buildings.
Still present in 9 out of 10 schools
The BBC has seen figures that suggest asbestos is still present in nearly 9 out of 10 schools in the UK.
One man who contacted the BBC was diagnosed with mesothelioma many years after his exposure to asbestos dust and fibres while at school in Devon.
He made a claim against Devon County Council, where an out of court settlement was reached. Although there was a settlement, the council have still not accepted liability, saying it “…takes great care to manage asbestos in its buildings” and that “all Devon schools have been surveyed for asbestos and each school holds a full record of asbestos in its buildings.”
A freedom of information request was sent to councils around the UK, requesting information on the number of schools containing asbestos. Their response showed that a shocking 87.2% of schools in the UK still contained asbestos, which is considerably higher than previous official estimates.
It was also found that at least 224 teachers have died from mesothelioma between 2003 and 2012 alone, and the figure of other asbestos related deaths in teachers and school workers could be much, much higher.
Lives at risk
The NUT says that lives are at risk and Ian Watkinson says that the teaching unions were working together and are calling for urgent action from the government.
County councillor for Lancashire Matthew Tomlinson, cabinet member for children, young people and schools, said: “As in all other councils around the country, most of Lancashire’s older schools contain some asbestos. Where it occurs, it is inspected regularly and does not represent any threat to staff, children or young people. As long as it is in good condition, well-sealed and not disturbed then it is far safer to leave it well alone.”
Following a national campaign by teaching unions, the Government last week published the findings of its review of asbestos policy in schools, calling for better training and guidance.
It was described as merely, “a step in the right direction, but no more.”
Lancashire Evening Post “Asbestos in our schools is a local and national scandal”
Video report made by the BBC on the 9th of March 2015 “Killer dust asbestos still present in schools”
The National Asbestos Helpline – The NAH Case Studies page