What is asbestos and why is it in Welsh Schools?
Asbestos is an extremely dangerous, toxic mineral. However, it was a wonder product in its day and had excellent fireproofing and insulating properties. It was mined and made into all sorts of asbestos products which were then used in the construction industry.
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 ofbreathing in the potentially harmful fibres.
Exposure to asbestos has the potential to cause very serious health problems to include an aggressive cancer called mesothelioma. It is possible to develop this condition after exposure to only a few asbestos fibres so 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 70 years.
What is the picture across Wales?
The results of a Freedom of Information request by BBC Wales in late 2021 revealed that around 60% of Welsh schools contain asbestos. However, four councils did not even respond to the request, so the figure is likely to be higher.
The picture varies throughout Wales and there are certainly inconsistent approaches being taken by different councils. Some councils hadn’t carried out asbestos surveys for 20 years and, for those that had, the asbestos containing materials hadn’t been monitored or checked in 10 years.
Who is at risk?
Unfortunately, many school teachers and cleaning/kitchen staff have died from mesothelioma.
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 30s. 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 sadly 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
The big question is – 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.
Unfortunately, there seems to be a massive lack of awareness, and this issue is twofold. Firstly, many schools are not aware of the extent of asbestos containing materials within their schools because of insufficient surveys and training. Secondly, even when schools hold asbestos registers, the location and potential risks are often not communicated to staff or pupils in any event.
My mother works in a school and has done for years. She 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 staff 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 extremely expensive. To give a rough idea, it costs around £1,200 to have internal asbestos insulation board removed from a single garage ceiling.
It is clear that we are still a way off from the introduction of a policy designed to remove asbestos from Welsh 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.
We hope that the BBC Wales’ Freedom of Information request has brought concerns over asbestos in schools to the forefront of councils’ minds, and that steps will be taken to obtain up to date surveys and to ensure a regular program of monitoring is put in place.
However, in reality, “managing” asbestos is simply not enough. 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 surely outweighs this short-term monetary burden. 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.