Teacher dies following asbestos exposure at several schools over 27 years

A teacher tragically died after being exposed to asbestos at several schools during a 27-year period, a coroner has ruled.

Long-serving teacher Elizabeth Belt died as a result of mesothelioma on September 9, last year, aged 68. She had been bravely battling cancer for three years.

In a detailed statement given by Mrs Belt before her death she outlined many occasions when she was exposed to the dangerous, and now illegal, substance while teaching young children.

Speaking at her inquest, coroner Paul Kelly said:

“I have no doubt that Mrs Belt contracted malignant mesothelioma as a result of ingesting asbestos while working as a teacher at various schools in North Lincolnshire between 1968 and 1995.”

During the proceedings at Scunthorpe Civic Centre, North Lincs., Mrs Belt’s statement was read out.

It focused on her time at three schools during the pertinent period in which she was exposed to the infamous material, and highlighted pinning and unpinning childrens’ work of boards and times when the classrooms would “seem a bit dusty”.

The statement said her first teaching post was Brigg County Primary School, North Lincs. Before her death, the teacher detailed a number of occasions when she was exposed to asbestos. Mrs Belt said:

“There may have been exposure to asbestos at the infant section of the school.

There were large sections of boarding where the children’s work was displayed and there would be a change of work every two to three weeks.”

The mother said they were “constantly” pinning on the board using drawing pins and other items. Mrs Belt added:

“They had that same boarding and there was constant pinning and removing. There was considerable use of a staple gun.

In one school, there was quite a lot of damage caused by mischievous pupils in the upper school.

A boy had made a hole in the wall at one time and pupils would kick at the walls. There were holes in the corridor walls.”

The classroom was usually dusty after a weekend”.

Coroner Paul Kelly said:

“There was no obvious exposure to asbestos after 1995 and it is likely that the asbestos ingestion had occurred before 1995.”

The inquest heard that North Lincolnshire Council insurers have accepted a claim with the family of Mrs Belt. Mr Kelly recorded a verdict of death as the result of an industrial disease.

Speaking after the inquest, Mrs Belt’s daughter Charlotte Shearwood wanted to raise awareness about mesothelioma. She said:

“It is a horrible, horrible disease. There is obviously a generation that worked with her in the same places.”

A North Lincolnshire Council spokeswoman said:

“Our thoughts are with Elizabeth’s family and friends.

Inquests are difficult and sad occasions, but at least her family now have closure and can start to move on with their lives. Though Elizabeth’s employment related to pre-North Lincolnshire Council, we have a policy of not discussing individual cases.”

Asbestos expert Professor John Cherrie, who works at Heriot Watt University and at the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh said asbestos gets into the lungs through microscopic fibres, which are long, thin, mineral particles.  He said;

“They are so small if they were in the air, you would not be able to see them. They are small enough to get into the lungs if you inhale the dust-laden air, and they remain in the lung for a long period of time.”

Professor Cherrie said the disease will usually present itself around 40 years after being exposed to asbestos. He said:

“Most people get exposed to the thing that causes mesothelioma when they are young people, in their 20s or 30s, and they get the effects when they are older and retired.

In theory, there is this idea that very small amounts of exposure can give rise to a risk of disease.”

However, Professor Cherrie said mesothelioma was still a “relatively rare” disease, adding that it mainly affects men that work in industries where they might have come across asbestos as part of their work.

He said this is common in labouring jobs such as carpenters, but he was aware of cases involving schools. Professor Cherrie said unless the pupils were “heavily exposed”, then he did not think they should be especially worried.