Asbestos risk to teaching staff and children in more than 5,000 primary schools

New figures reveal that asbestos is found in nearly half of local authority run primary schools, putting children at increased risk of developing cancer.

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request by Stephensons Solicitors LLP to the 152 local education authorities in England has revealed 5,196 maintained primary schools (out of a total of 11,217) are understood to contain the potentially lethal material.    

The lifetime risk of developing mesothelioma is predicted to be about three and a half times greater for a child first exposed at age five compared to an adult first exposed at age 25 and about five times greater when compared to an adult first exposed at age 30, according to the Government.

Even low levels of exposure to asbestos fibres can cause both lung cancer, as well as cancer of the lining of the lung called mesothelioma.

Kate Sweeney, a partner at Stephensons Solicitors LLP, said that the primary school data is only the “tip of the iceberg” since local authorities do not hold information about academies and free schools, which are now the majority of schools in England.

She continued;

“Many people still think that asbestos is a problem of the past and that asbestos-related illnesses only occur in trades’ people or people who have worked in the construction industry.

This is simply not the case. The potentially deadly material has been used in all types of buildings and is still present in many primary schools due to aging school buildings. Parents and teachers have a right to know if asbestos is present and what measures are being taken to manage exposure.”

Kate Sweeney, Stephensons Solicitors LLP

Three quarters of schools contain asbestos, but the Health and Safety Executive say that it only presents a risk if it is disturbed or damaged, which risks fibres being released into the atmosphere.

 According to the National Union of Teachers, 319 teachers have died from mesothelioma since 1980. It is estimated that for every teacher’s death, nine children will die, meaning over 100 people will die every year in the UK as a result of exposure when they were at school. 

Most victims die within 18 months of diagnosis, but it often does not appear until around 40 years after the person first breathes in the dust.

There is no statutory duty on schools to report their asbestos management, Ms Sweeney said, which means many turn a blind eye to the potential danger it poses.  

Academies and free schools are not included as they are no longer required to report to their local education authority on asbestos because they are outside of their control.

Liz Darlison, Head of Services at Mesothelioma UK, added:

“Sadly, the UK has the highest incidence of mesothelioma in the world which directly correlates to the amount of asbestos we imported. There is no safe level of exposure and sadly, we should be doing much more to protect people, particularly children.

Liz Darlison, t Mesothelioma UK,

A Department for Education spokesman said it plans to publish the findings of its Asbestos Management Assurance Process school survey shortly. 

Their spokesperson said;

 “Since 2015, we have already allocated more than £7.4 billion to those responsible for school buildings to maintain and improve the school estate, including removing asbestos when it is the safest course of action.”

Department for Education