Asbestos in schools is a ‘serious’ problem, Government report finds

Posted: 2nd Aug 17 12:30 PM

Asbestos in schools is a “serious” problem that could potentially threaten the health of children, a recent Government report has found, as it concludes that thousands of schools are failing to follow safety guidelines.

Of the schools that responded to an official survey, one fifth were found to be “not fully compliant” with asbestos procedures, leaving over one million children potentially exposed to the dangerous asbestos fibres.

Of those schools, over 100 were deemed to be a “significant cause for concern”, and required government intervention. The Department for Education said that it had emailed those schools and has received reassurances that the asbestos is now safe.

School leaders have branded the report’s findings “deeply concerning”, and urged the Department for Education to instigate a works programme that would see asbestos removed from all schools.

The report, published by the Education Funding Agency (EFA), found that about 20% of schools were not fully compliant with asbestos procedures “in that they did not have fully documented plans, processes and procedures in place at the time of data collection, or did not know if asbestos was present.” As part of the Department for Education, the EFA oversees funding for all schools, academies and colleges in England.

Another recent report by made by the National Audit Office (NAO) found that “asbestos is a significant, and potentially dangerous, issue in many buildings, including most schools”.

The NAO report also noted “the department does not collate information on the number of school buildings being affected”.

“These results call into question the Department for Education’s fundamental assumption that asbestos can be managed safely and left in situ, as clearly this is not happening in too many cases,” says Chris Keates, general secretary of the teaching union NASUWT.

“Asbestos is lethal. The only safe asbestos is removed asbestos. The Department for Education must bring forward proposals for the phased removal of all asbestos in schools without delay.”

Between January and March 2016, the Government sent a voluntary survey to schools, but only a quarter of schools actually responded.

This means that the true number of schools that do not comply with asbestos safety procedures is likely to be far higher, as the report notes that there may be a “selection bias” towards schools that “already manage asbestos well”.

Adding to this, Ms Keates said: “It is reasonable to assume that schools who know they are not compliant would be less likely to respond, therefore the true number who are failing to comply could be substantially higher, with hundreds of schools putting pupils and teachers at risk by failing to manage asbestos effectively.”

A new wave of sufferers

Asbestos is still found in many buildings constructed before 2000 and because some people are more susceptible to mesothelioma after inhaling just a few asbestos fibres, there is a new wave of suffers who develop the cancer after low levels of exposure. These victims are not the industrial and construction workers of the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, but office, retail and classroom based professionals.

Teachers and pupils

The highest profile of this new wave are teachers. Between 1980 and 1985, there were 15 mesothelioma deaths among school teachers – just three per year. In 2012 alone, there were 22. A growing number of legal cases now involve people who believe they – or relatives – were exposed to asbestos as pupils.

More than 75% of school buildings contain asbestos. According to a similar report from the all-party parliamentary group on occupational health and safety, the issue is a “time-bomb in our schools”. Almost all the 14,000 schools built between 1945 and 1975 contain asbestos alongside any that were refurbished during that period.

While asbestos does not pose a serious risk if enclosed and well managed, that report says materials such as asbestos lagging, sprayed asbestos and asbestos insulating board can release dangerous fibres and are present in our schools. The all-party group quotes a report from the Medical Research Council, which estimates that even when a school building containing asbestos is kept in good condition, fibre levels are between 5 and 500 times than levels found outside.

Consequences of asbestos exposure

It is known that even low levels of exposure to asbestos fibres can cause various asbestos-related diseases, such as pleural thickening, asbestosis, asbestos-related lung cancer and mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lung.

Most victims of asbestos-related diseases die within 18 months of diagnosis, but symptoms of the diseases do not appear until 10-50 years after the person first inhales the fibres.

According to the National Union of Teachers, 319 teachers have died from mesothelioma since 1980. It is estimated that for every teacher’s death, nine children will die from asbestos-related disease later in life, meaning that 100 people will die every year because of exposure when they were at school.

Symptoms of asbestos-related diseases often include:

  • A persistent cough;
  • Breathlessness;
  • Feeling more tired than usual for some time;
  • Losing weight for no obvious reason, or loss of appetite.

If you, or someone you know, have any of these symptoms, or any of the others listed in the several links above, we urge you to see your doctor as soon as you can, or tell them to make an appointment.

Further reading

Who is at risk of developing mesothelioma and is the lung cancer moving on to a different type of victim?

Health Risk: Asbestos still present in 9 out of 10 schools in the UK

What is mesothelioma?

What is pleural thickening?