Asbestos in schools is a ‘scandal’ that puts the lives of both pupils and teachers at risk, according to a report by a safety group. Asbestos was widely used as an insulator in the construction of buildings until 1999, when it was declared too dangerous.
Several lung diseases have been linked to asbestos, the most serious being mesothelioma – cancer of the lung lining – which is always fatal and almost exclusively caused by exposure to asbestos. Exposure can also cause lung cancer, scarring of the lungs and thickening of lung membrane – all of which are serious lung diseases that can be fatal and/or life limiting.
According to the Joint Union Asbestos Committee, asbestos is present in 75 per cent of schools, and it is unknown how much asbestos exposure is required before a person is at risk of being ill.
The diseases caused by asbestos exposure do not affect a person immediately, and it could be between 15 and 60 years before they become ill. This means that it is difficult to know how much damage asbestos in a school is doing at any given time.
JUAC has warned that “there is urgent need for action” against asbestos in schools, which they say has killed 406 teachers since 1980. The report estimates 300 people per year could die from asbestos exposure as a result of attending school during the 1960s and 1970s. Cleaners, support staff and caretakers are also at risk.
The current UK government policy is that asbestos may be left alone, as long as it is in good condition and is not likely to be disturbed, for example by additional construction work.
Some schools have asbestos management systems, but many do not as they are not compulsory unless the asbestos is disturbed. The report from the Asbestos Consultants Association, quoted by JUAC, states:
“These are not minor problems that have crept in over recent years. They are fundamental problems that are endemic in schools in the UK.”
JUAC said that the problem in schools was a result of “systematic failures” in the way it was dealt with by successive governments, even after it was shown to be extremely harmful.
It said Whitehall showed a “scandalous disregard for life” by allowing inadequate surveys and not campaigning against compulsory detection that would prevent future cases mesothelioma.
The UK has the highest incidence of mesothelioma in the world, and is twice that of France, Germany and the USA, according to JUAC.
Incidences of mesothelioma have increased exponentially over the years. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the National Union of Teachers have been campaigning to urge the government to take action asbestos for years, but the rules are yet to be changed.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said:
“Only through the safe, planned removal of all the asbestos which still remains in place across the UK, will the deadly menace of asbestos be lifted from future generations.”