Posted by Jennifer Seavor, Senior Associate
Asbestos in schools: manage or remove?
Jennifer Seavor, Associate in the Royds Withy King Industrial Diseases team, looks at why asbestos should be managed or removed in UK schools.
The dangers associated with exposure to asbestos dust have been known now for decades. Over the last few years, the media has highlighted the issue of asbestos in schools describing it as a ‘ticking time bomb’. Even small levels of exposure to asbestos dust can cause mesothelioma however many do to not appreciate how serious the issue is.
We may see asbestos disease as something which affects other people. Not our spouses, children, Mums and Dads, brothers and sisters. However, the reality of the situation is that asbestos disease could affect any one of us. It does not discriminate. Whilst asbestos disease once only affected those working in industry and tradespeople, we are now seeing a new generation of asbestos disease sufferers – many who were potentially exposed by simply working in or attending school.
Why was asbestos used in schools?
Asbestos was extensively used in the UK as a building material between the 1940s and 1990s. Modular building systems such as CLASP and SCOLA were developed during the post-war period from 1945 until approximately 1980 and were widely used for school premises, for speedy and cheap construction. Many of these buildings are still in use today. It is thought that of the 33,600 schools in Britain more than 75% contain asbestos – although in 2015 the BBC claimed the true figure could be 90%.
Many schools have structural columns fireproofed with asbestos. Pipes and boilers were lagged with the material. Asbestos insulation board (AIB) was used for wall panels and under windows, as well as for ceiling tiles, soffits, fascias, in warm air heaters; even for Bunsen burner mats. Asbestos cement sheeting was used for gutters and drainpipes, for roofing on bike sheds, garages, and PE blocks. Textured wall coatings contain asbestos. Even floor tiles, blackboards, and toilet cisterns sometimes have asbestos content.
How has policy changed towards asbestos? Is it fit for purpose?
Since 2010 and the introduction of The Control of Asbestos Regulations, there has been a duty to manage asbestos in non-domestic properties. The HSE initially undertook inspections of schools to assess whether the regulations were being complied with – although now inspections are not done proactively. Indeed, in a report in February 2017 conducted by the Education Funding Agency, it was found that one-fifth of schools were ‘not fully compliant’ with over 100 schools being deemed as a ‘significant cause for concern’. This may be a considerable underestimation as other studies have shown that most schools have no or inadequate asbestos management policies. Even if we were to accept that the 2012 Regulations are sufficient and working, as mesothelioma develops so many years after exposure, say the median of 40 years, we will still be seeing mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos in schools prior to 2012 in 2052.
It must be questioned whether a policy of managing asbestos is sufficient. If asbestos is in good or reasonable condition should it just be left in situ? Many think it should but the simple fact of the matter is that asbestos-containing materials release fibres and dust from normal wear and tear. The risk of actual damage to asbestos-containing materials in schools is greater because of the nature of the environment. Whether it is children slamming asbestos doors, kicking balls against, punching and picking holes in asbestos sheeted walls, or teachers pinning up artwork on walls with asbestos textured coatings, it is easy to see how easily asbestos-containing materials can become damaged in schools.
The human cost of ‘managing’ asbestos is huge. Over 140 school teachers have died from mesothelioma in the last 10 years; 319 since 1980. This does not take account of the unknown numbers of cleaners, caretakers and other staff. What about pupils? It is thought that children are at an even greater risk because their lungs are still developing. For every teacher that develops mesothelioma, it is thought that there will be 9 pupils who are also affected. It has been estimated that 100 people die every year in the UK as a result of asbestos exposure whilst they were at school.
The Government policy on asbestos in schools seems inconsistent. It intends to spend £4.6 million on removing asbestos from the Houses of Parliament and millions more on removing it from Buckingham Palace. Perhaps we should be prioritising the health and safety of the most vulnerable – our children. Last year the Department for Education committed to building 500 new free schools by 2020 – but that leaves existing schools which are still in use to crumble with £6.7 billion needed to bring them up to an adequate standard.
Lucie Stephens lost her Mum Sue to mesothelioma in 2016. Sue was a teacher in schools in Devon for almost 30 years and could not have been exposed to asbestos in any other way. Lucie has worked tirelessly to raise awareness and campaign for the removal of asbestos from schools. She considers that:
• Every school should be required to produce an annual report about the type and condition of any asbestos on the premises and share it with parents and staff.
• The Government should commit to the phased removal of all asbestos from schools by 2028, starting with the most dangerous forms of asbestos.
• The HSE must reinstate pro-active inspections of asbestos in schools to assess the condition of asbestos and the quality of management.
How we see things
Having acted for people who have developed mesothelioma due to asbestos in schools whilst working as teachers, caretakers, cleaners, dinner ladies and support staff an as well as pupils, my colleagues and I know only too well what the devastating consequences are of the presence of asbestos-containing materials in schools.
We can choose to deny the problem and continue to ‘manage’ asbestos in schools in line with HSE guidelines or we can work together, highlight the issue and push for the removal of asbestos from all schools within a set timeframe.
As with many things, asbestos removal comes down to funding. Who will pay? It isn’t going to happen overnight but it must happen. My view is we can never truly manage asbestos in schools because we will never be able to predict or anticipate when an asbestos-containing material may become damaged, expelling millions of asbestos fibres into the air. The Government must face up to the facts and take positive action. As long as schools contain asbestos, our children, teachers and other school staff are at risk. It has been said that asbestos in schools is a story of complacency, neglect and turning a blind eye. The only option is removal and for every year that removal is delayed, there will be more exposure and more fatalities.
If you or a loved one have contracted mesothelioma as a result of asbestos exposure, contact our specialist team
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