Teachers must be protected from the “scourge of asbestos”, the National Union of Teachers has said.
The NUT puts the UK-wide figure of asbestos in schools at 86%, based on a Freedom of Information request to local authorities, however a 2013 study from the independent Committee on Carcinogenicity estimated more than 75% of schools in England had buildings containing asbestos. Either way, it’s too much.
Once exposed to asbestos, the symptoms of mesothelioma – a rare form of cancer almost always caused by exposure to the substance – generally take 30 to 40 years to develop. When diagnosed, however, most people expect to live between just 12 and 21 months.
Teachers whose classrooms gave them cancer
Between 2003 and 2012, 224 people in Britain whose last occupation was recorded as “teaching professional” died of the disease. The rate of deaths is rising, in line with overall mesothelioma deaths, which amounted to 21,957 during this same period.
There are now strict government regulations on how to manage asbestos and monitor its condition in schools, but an NUT online survey – based on 201 responses – suggested 44% of teachers had not been told whether their school contained the substance.
The asbestos time-bomb
Former teachers who have been exposed have recently been compensated by their local authorities. Many were understandably unaware that by banging doors or replacing ceiling tiles they were disturbing and then being exposed to asbestos fibres. They have spoken of asbestos in schools being “a time-bomb waiting to explode”, with their fears being for both pupils and teachers. Read more about the work Inspectas do for the Education sector here.
There are no statistics to suggest how many people might have developed mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure as a pupil, but the Committee on Carcinogenicity suggests a child first exposed to asbestos aged five has a lifetime risk of developing the cancer about five times greater than that of an adult first exposed aged 30.
A government review of asbestos in schools in March 2015 concluded if it was undamaged and managed safely, it did not pose a significant risk and it was safer to keep it in place. The government said it would continue to develop more targeted guidance on asbestos management in schools and, where appropriate, fund its removal.
A Department of Education spokesperson said:
“Billions has been invested to improve the condition of the school estate, with further significant investment to come over this Parliament. This funding will help to ensure asbestos is managed safely and that the amount in school buildings continues to reduce over time.”
But NUT general secretary Christine Blower said the government had no “long-term strategy” and there was “still no (government) recognition that asbestos is a serious problem for schools”.