It is a well-known fact that asbestos is an extremely dangerous, toxic mineral. It is less well known that up to 85 – 90% of schools in England and Wales still contain asbestos.
Most schools built before 2000 will contain asbestos in some capacity. This could include asbestos ceiling tiles, asbestos wall panels, asbestos vinyl floor tiles, corrugated asbestos roofing and asbestos insulation on pipework. Although the UK banned the majority of the most hazardous asbestos types in the 1980s, the final banning of all asbestos, including asbestos cement and floor tiles, only came in 1999. In many instances schools were built before the 1980s and the asbestos materials have never been removed.
As the asbestos products wear down over time, or if they are damaged in any way, the small, fine fibres released put staff and pupils at risk of breathing in the potentially harmful fibres.
Mesothelioma is a type of cancer, the only known cause of which is exposure to asbestos. It is possible to develop this condition after exposure to only a few asbestos fibres. There is no safe exposure limit. Asbestos is often known as the silent killer as there is usually a long delay between first exposure to asbestos dust and the diagnosis of illness - between 10 and 60 years. It is important to emphasise that only a small proportion of people will go on to develop the condition.
Who is at risk?
Since 1980, at least 363 school teachers have died from mesothelioma and a further 165 higher education teaching professionals have also died from the disease.
However, it is not just the adults who are at risk. A study carried out by the Environmental Protection Agency in the US suggests that for every teacher that dies, nine former pupils are expected to die from the same deadly disease.
Children are particularly vulnerable and research shows that a five year old child exposed to asbestos is five times more likely to contract mesothelioma than someone exposed to asbestos in their thirties. It is reported that between 200 and 300 people die each year as a result of exposure to asbestos they suffered as school children.
The specialist asbestos-related disease team at Hugh James act on behalf of a number of former teachers and caretakers who suffer from mesothelioma.
Duty of the school
Under Regulation 4 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, anyone who has responsibility for the maintenance and repair of schools must keep records of asbestos containing materials within the school and the condition of the material. They must assess and manage the risks of the toxic substance to its employees and pupils. This duty extends to anyone who is likely to work on or disturb the asbestos.
The regulations require ‘reasonable’ steps to be taken to identify the potential presence of asbestos and do not specifically require asbestos surveys to be carried out.
Removal v Management
A big topic of conversation at the moment concerns the removal of asbestos from schools. Is ‘managing’ asbestos really sufficient?
The recommendation of the HSE is that if asbestos is unlikely to be damaged or disturbed, it is best to leave it in situ and manage it appropriately to avoid disturbance i.e. by sealing or encapsulating. This is clearly the cheaper option, although there is still ongoing administration required in creating management plans, reviewing and monitoring the same and arranging training.
In theory, if the asbestos is suitably contained, exposure should be averted. However, it is clear that there must be some failings in the system as teachers and former pupils continue to be diagnosed with mesothelioma. We need to question whether there is not only a lack of resources at schools, but also a lack of asbestos awareness in the first place. Do those responsible for health and safety in schools truly understand the risks associated with asbestos exposure? Is this information being passed on to the teachers and other staff members?
My partner is a primary school teacher. He has worked at five different schools and he has never been made aware of the presence of asbestos in the school, or received any asbestos awareness training. This in and of itself is a serious concern. How can teachers protect themselves and the pupils in their care from asbestos exposure if they have no knowledge of the location of asbestos, or indeed the dangers associated with it?
In order to ensure that the risk of exposure to asbestos is completely eradicated, the only option is complete removal of asbestos in all schools. Not only would this be the most effective way of protecting education staff and pupils, but this would also remove the administration associated with asbestos reporting and management. Additionally, this would bring with it peace of mind for those responsible for the school, those working there and the parents of the pupils.
However, there is no hiding the fact that asbestos removal is a specialist job and to undertake this on a huge scale within a school would be very expensive. Since 2015, the government has allocated £7.4 billion to those responsible for schools, for essential maintenance and improvements to include asbestos removal. In the five years from 2015 – 2019, this amounts to £1.48 billion per year. There are around 32,770 schools in the UK which leaves each school with £45,163.36 per year.
To give a rough idea, it costs around £1,200 to have internal asbestos insulation board removed from a single garage ceiling. Considering this money is provided to cover all maintenance and improvements at the school, it is clear to see why asbestos removal falls to the bottom of the list of priorities.
In 2012, MPs recommended that the government introduce and implement a policy for the phased removal of all asbestos from schools to be completed by 2028. Unfortunately, no such policy has yet been introduced.
The government says it does not yet have enough information to address the problem. The government aims to increase its knowledge about the current situation in schools and launched the Asbestos Management Assurance Process (AMAP) in March 2018 which asked all state funded schools and academies in England about their asbestos management practices. 88.4% of schools participated and of these, 80.9% of these schools confirmed the presence of asbestos in its buildings.
The findings from the AMAP do seem to suggest, however, that the management of asbestos in schools is generally effective, with 96.9% of participating schools having an asbestos register and a management plan.
The HSE considers schools to be low risk for asbestos exposure. With between 200 and 300 people dying each year as a result of exposure to asbestos they suffered as school children, the statistics would suggest otherwise.
It is clear that we are still a way off from the introduction of a policy designed to remove asbestos from all schools all together. Sadly, the only certainty we have is that whilst asbestos remains in place, it will continue to degrade each year and will continue to pose a real threat to the health of teachers, staff and pupils.
Inhalation of only a few asbestos fibres can ultimately result in mesothelioma. There is no safe exposure limit. Until it is removed for good, we can make no guarantees that the lives of pupils, staff and teachers have been protected. Until a formal policy is implemented and asbestos removed from all schools for good, people will continue to be exposed to asbestos and diagnosed with mesothelioma for years to come.
On a positive note, it is good to see that a large number of schools have asbestos management plans in place. The effectiveness of these, however, is currently unknown and we must not forget those schools who failed to respond to the government’s AMAP request all together.
It is apparent that neither the schools nor the government have any real idea of the scale of the problem. On that basis, the only safe way to proceed would be for the government to commit to a fully funded, phased removal of all asbestos in schools. It will be expensive to remove all asbestos from schools but the future cost of the health of pupils and staff far outweighs this short term monetary burden.
In reality, “managing” asbestos is simply not enough. The failure to act poses unacceptable risks to the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society, and the professionals who teach and care for them.
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