Silent classroom killer? 75% of schools contain deadly asbestos says report

Lung asbestos bodiesSchools might strive to be healthy, safe environments for students, but hidden asbestos could be putting the very lives of teachers and pupils at risk.

New fears have surfaced over the safety of pupils, following a report revealing that more than 75% of Britain’s state schools contain deadly asbestos, much of which is badly maintained.

The report, by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health, warns that asbestos is a very real and present danger for both pupils and teachers and concludes that “there are serious deficiencies in the way that asbestos is managed in schools.”

MPs are now calling on the Government to address this ‘time-bomb’ and implement a programme to clear the material from schools.

Launching the report on 1st Feb, the chair of the All-Party Group, Jim Sheridan MP, said: “This is a national scandal. Urgent action is needed to prevent more pupils, teachers and other staff being exposed to this deadly killer dust.

“We need both far greater awareness of the risks that this material poses and a programme for its phased removal.”

Danger

Whilst asbestos might not feature highly in the consciousness of school leadership staff, it is an issue that could have devastating consequences if not properly managed and maintained.

Over 140 school teachers have died from mesothelioma, a rare asbestos-related cancer, in the past ten years, along with an unknown number of cleaners, admin staff and caretakers.

The number of children who have died as a result of exposure to asbestos while at school is unknown, but researchers in the US estimate that for every teacher’s death from asbestos-related diseases, nine children will die.

This means that over 100 people in the UK die every year as a result of asbestos exposure when they were at school.

Asbestos was widely used in buildings from the 1950’s to the mid 1980’s and is regularly found in pipe laggings, boiler rooms, walls, ceilings, and window and door surrounds. Any damage or disturbance renders it extremely dangerous, as inhalation of the fibres causes lung cancer, fatal mesothelioma and debilitating asbestosis.

Britain has the highest mesothelioma incidence in the world and twice as many people die from asbestos exposure in Britain as are killed on the roads.

What’s more, evidence shows that children are more at risk from the dangers of asbestos than adults, with estimates showing that a five-year-old pupil is more than five times more likely to develop mesothelioma by the age of 80 than their 30-year-old teacher.

This, along with the vast numbers of children exposed to asbestos dust whilst in full-time education, makes its presence in schools all the more contentious.

“Everyone attends school,” states the All-Party Parliamentary Group’s (APPG) report, “so the numbers facing potential exposure are much larger than in any other workplace.

“Although it is known how many teachers have died it is not known, because of the long latency, how many children have subsequently died. The teachers’ deaths are therefore the tip of the iceberg.”

Management

Government policy dictates that so long as the asbestos is in good condition, and unlikely to be disturbed, it is safer to leave it in situ whilst managing and monitoring it, than removing it entirely.

Employers have a duty to manage the risks from asbestos through inspections, registers, risk assessments and written management plans. But whilst some schools are effectively managing their asbestos, many are failing to put effective management systems in place.

Inspections carried out over the last five years have found flaws in asbestos management in numerous schools, and a report by the Asbestos Consultants Association concluded that the systems of asbestos management in many schools are ineffective and at times dangerous.

The reasons for these failings are various. For a start, many school leaders simply haven’t been appropriately trained to deal with asbestos management and many teachers lack the asbestos awareness that would enable them to avoid disturbing the material.

Secondly, much of the asbestos in schools is in a poor condition or unsealed. This means that everyday classroom activities such as slamming doors, removing books from cupboards or attaching pupils’ work to walls with staples or drawing pins can release dangerous levels of asbestos fibres into classrooms.

In 2006 it was discovered that simply slamming doors and hitting walls caused asbestos fibres to be released at a rate 800 times greater than background levels, whilst removing books from a stationery cupboard with an AIB back released levels 100 times greater than those commonly detected.

The result is that dangerous levels of asbestos fibres are being released, whilst staff are completely unaware that their management plans are failing.

Removal

Due to the problems involved with asbestos management, MPs are now calling for the phased removal of asbestos from schools across the UK.

“As well as the ever-present potential for fibre release, effective asbestos management in a school can be expensive, time-consuming and requires a sustained commitment” states APPG the report.

“It is recommended that the phased removal of asbestos is adopted as national policy with priority being given to the most dangerous materials. That will result in the problem being eventually resolved, whereas if it is not adopted as policy then asbestos will remain a problem in schools indefinitely.”

The recommendation has been welcomed by many educational professionals, and a number of teaching unions including the NUT are now calling joining their voices to those of the All-Party Parliamentary Group to call for the removal of asbestos from schools.

Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, the largest teachers’ union, said: “We wholeheartedly welcome the intervention of the APPG on the issue of asbestos in schools. As the Chair of the Committee, Jim Sheridan MP, said, it is indeed a national scandal that asbestos continues to be present in our schools.

“The NUT was the first teachers’ union to campaign to have asbestos removed from schools and yet despite the problem being brought to the attention of successive governments, it is still the case that asbestos remains in most schools.

“Asbestos does not just harm, it kills, which makes it quite unbelievable that as a country we allow children and staff in schools to be exposed to it.”

Recommendations

In addition to their call for the phased removal of all asbestos from schools, the APPG has made five other recommendations on the way the Government should move forward in regard to the issue of asbestos in schools.

Not only does it call for mandatory asbestos training for school staff, but it also recommends that the DfE and HSE should jointly develop asbestos guidance specifically for schools, that a ‘policy of openness’ should be adopted enabling parents, teachers and support staff to be annually updated on the presence of asbestos in their schools, and that data should be collected centrally on the extent, type and condition of asbestos in schools.

Moreover, it suggests that pro-active inspections should be reinstated to determine the standards of asbestos management in schools.

Perhaps it will take a while for asbestos to be completely removed from state schools in Britain, and perhaps not all the APPG’s recommendations will be adopted immediately, but one thing’s for certain: this report makes very uncomfortable reading and some changes are likely to be made as a result of its findings.

As Christine Blower commented: “The APPG has made six eminently sensible recommendations. Now is the time for the Government to stop burying its head in the sand, acknowledge the extent of the problem and begin to address it.”

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