In Britain asbestos was widely used in the construction of buildings particularly post-war until its use declined and was banned in 1999. During this period the building of the majority of the country’s state primary and secondary schools took place and today they still contain significant amounts of asbestos.
In Suffolk a Freedom of Information Act (FIA) request to Suffolk County Council revealed 350 schools which could be affected by asbestos.
In 2015 the Government published a review of The Department for Education (DfE) policy on asbestos management in schools. The review acknowledged that ineffective management of asbestos in schools presents risk to children and staff.
Asbestos can occur as ceiling and wall panels which can be easily damaged allowing asbestos fibres to be released into the classroom. These fibres can then be inhaled by teachers or pupils with the possibility of later causing serious diseases such as mesothelioma, a fatal lung cancer.
This year over 5,000 premature deaths will be caused by asbestos exposure, this is more than three times the number of road accident deaths.
The latest national mesothelioma statistics for the education sector from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) show there were 22 school teachers’ deaths from mesothelioma, a year on year increase since 1980. A total of 291 school teachers have died of mesothelioma since 1980 of which 177 have died since 2001. These figures do not include other school based workers such as caretakers, cleaners or other maintenance staff who arguably might be at greater risk.
The Department of Health’s Committee on Carcinogenicity assessed the potential harm caused to children by asbestos exposure. It concluded that due to their longer life expectancy and the long latency period for asbestos related diseases, children have an increased lifetime risk of developing mesothelioma when compared to adults if similarly exposed.
The HSE is the primary regulator in the UK for the management of asbestos and is responsible for enforcing the control of asbestos regulations. It is worrying that a HSE initiative carried out in 2013/14 found that less than 40% of schools sampled in England were aware of the DfE guidance concerning asbestos in schools.
Regulations for managing asbestos in the workplace or public buildings such as schools will never protect individuals from risk so long as asbestos is found in any place where someone could be exposed. Logically the only solution is to remove asbestos from the schools completely.
Other countries are already developing asbestos eradication plans. In 2013, Australia set up an Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency with the specific goal of removing asbestos from public and commercial buildings. In Europe the European Parliament has called for the removal of asbestos from all European public buildings by 2028.
In the UK an all Party Parliamentary Group has recommended new regulations requiring the removal of all the asbestos in schools by 2028 however this is yet to become law and it will be interesting to see whether there is a divergence of approach and regulation post Brexit.
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