A survey taken online by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) has shown that nearly 50% of all respondents had not been told whether their school contained asbestos, despite it being known that the deadly substance is present in 86% of schools, the National Asbestos Helpline has reported.
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Asbestos was used in building materials and construction for decades before it was banned in the UK. It is known to cause several illnesses, such as mesothelioma – a cancer of the lining of the lungs linked exclusively to asbestos exposure – pleural thickening and asbestosis.
Following release of the NUT Report, of the 46% told that their school contained asbestos, half did not know where it was located, leaving them unable to take the correct steps to avoid disturbing it.
Shockingly, nearly 50% of all respondents had not been told whether their school contains asbestos. This is concerning given that the majority of schools (86%) do contain asbestos.
In addition, less than 5% of respondents had been told that their school did not contain asbestos; therefore the majority of respondents either knew that asbestos was present in their school, or had not been told either way.
Of the 46% of respondents who had been told that their school contained asbestos:
- Half had not been told where the asbestos was located. If staff are not given this information they cannot take steps to avoid disturbing it and they are at risk of exposure, as are pupils.
- Nearly 75% said that the asbestos was in accessible locations, such as floors, ceilings, and window frames. Schools are unlike the majority of other workplaces in that the majority of their occupants are children, who engage in normal but boisterous behaviours that are likely to disturb asbestos. It is known that children are more at risk because of the long latency period of asbestos diseases such as mesothelioma.
- Three quarters said that staff had not been provided with asbestos awareness training.
- Only 2% of respondents said that parents had been given information about the presence of asbestos in the school.
- The majority of respondents (85%) had not been shown their school’s asbestos management plan.
- Over three quarters were aware of incidents of potential asbestos exposure in their school.
- Nearly half of all respondents were unaware of Health and Safety Executive advice that no World War One or Two gas masks should be worn or handled in schools because of the potential risk of asbestos exposure. Nearly 100 respondents said that such gas masks were still worn or handled in their school, with some respondents reporting that they had been used recently on school visits.
Comments from survey respondents show instances of staff being kept in the dark about the presence of asbestos in their school, being aware of asbestos exposure incidents and of such incidents being dealt with in a wholly inappropriate way.
“There is asbestos in our school but I only know this after having seen a notice on a wall. No one has ever informed me directly and I am not aware of any procedures in place. Recently our school had a leak that resulted in part of the ceiling being damaged and needing repair, this was in one of the asbestos areas. At no point was any member of staff told of the potential dangers.”
“School will not tell me if there is asbestos in my classroom. There are big chunks of plaster missing out of the walls. Children pick at this during lessons.”
“Contractors came in to work in an area known to have asbestos, they were masked and suited and started work while children were in the same room, unprotected, waiting for a bus. It was reported and they were sacked.”
“Children regularly punch holes in walls and dig holes in plaster covering the asbestos.”
“An asbestos tile fell off the classroom wall, the tile was broken. The tiles were removed one weekend by a specialist team but none of the dust etc. was cleared away. The head asked the cleaner to give it a quick hoover on the Monday morning when the class teacher noticed it had not been cleared away properly.”
“Asbestos management seems very lax and if anyone raises a concern or issues it is either laughed at by the head or we are told off for mentioning it.”
Kevin Courtney, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, the largest teachers’ union, said:
“This survey reveals an appalling state of affairs in our schools. It certainly serves to strengthen our case for the Government to commit to a long-term strategy for the phased removal of asbestos from all our schools.
Parents need to be reassured that asbestos is being safely managed in their child’s school, something we clearly cannot be confident of at the moment.
The presence of asbestos in our schools is putting children and school staff at risk of developing mesothelioma, an incurable cancer caused by exposure. The Government’s casual approach to the health of staff and children in our schools is totally unacceptable and needs to stop.”
It was also found earlier in 2017 that staff and pupils across the country have been exposed to asbestos more than 90 times in the past 5 years – as recorded by local councils.
More than £10 million in compensation has been paid out over the same time frame to teachers and pupils who have suffered with illness due to asbestos exposure. Almost 250 staff and former pupils have made claims with just under half of their cases winning. All had developed mesothelioma as a result of their exposure.
A particular risk to children
Children have been found to be at particular risk of developing an asbestos-related disease because of the long latency periods between exposure and the first signs of symptoms, and the boisterous behaviour of young people in schools increasing the potential danger of asbestos as they are more likely to disturb it.
Respondents to the survey had reported incidents such as children punching holes in walls, for example, or picking at plaster which covered areas where asbestos was located.
According to the NUT, 319 teachers have died from mesothelioma since 1980. It is estimated that for every teacher’s death, nine children will die from asbestos-related disease later in life, meaning that 100 people will die every year because of exposure when they were at school.
Removing all asbestos from UK schools would cost billions of pounds, but many people believe a more rigorous approach should be taken to remove it.