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Calls for urgent action over asbestos in schools
An industrial disease specialist has joined growing calls for urgent action and a full inquiry into the presence of asbestos in UK schools.
Bridget Collier, head of the Industrial Disease team at Fentons Solicitors LLP and a specialist in asbestos-related cases, was speaking after the National Union of Teachers (NUT) called on the government to ensure that all traces of asbestos are removed from schools by 2030.
“Seventy-five per cent of all schools in the UK contain asbestos, rising to 90 per cent in parts of Manchester and Wales,” said Bridget. “Although, we’ve known for years that asbestos was widely used in schools, typically for fireproofing and insulation, the fact that some three-quarters of our schools are known to contain the material, potentially putting thousands of children and staff at risk, is clearly of huge concern.”
The NUT annual conference 2013 was told that 253 teachers have died from the asbestos-related cancer, mesothelioma since 1980. Teaching unions believe that the total removal of asbestos from schools is the preferred and safest solution whereas the Government believe that ‘managing’ the material is a better option.
“Asbestos that is still in good condition and unlikely to be damaged or disturbed does not pose any immediate significant health risks, as long as it is properly managed,” said Bridget. “However, there is increasing evidence that in many cases, asbestos is not being managed properly, the material is hidden and in very poor condition and that normal asbestos surveys without comprehensive air-testing are failing to identify the fact that harmful microscopic fibres are being given off and are present in the air.”
Bridget, who for many years has seen first-hand the devastating impact asbestos-related illness has on its victims and their families, said asbestos fibres are invisible to the naked eye. “When inhaled, these tiny indestructible fibres lodge inside the body and can remain latent without symptoms for decades before causing a number of cancers, including mesothelioma,” she said. “Mesothelioma is a particularly aggressive, painful and inevitably fatal disease caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibres. It can typically take between 15 and 60 years following asbestos exposure before any related symptoms become apparent.
“It is only when the symptoms begin to take hold that sufferers recognise the devastating effect working with asbestos however many years ago has had on them,” said Bridget. “Unfortunately, as a result of these long incubation periods, we are only now beginning to see the effects of asbestos exposure suffered during the 80s.”
The most common places asbestos can be found in schools include the ‘lagging’ used as insulation on pipes and boilers; the sprayed-on asbestos used for insulation, fire protection and partitioning; insulation boards; some ceiling tiles; floor tiles; roofing and guttering; and textured coatings.
“Whenever asbestos in schools is disturbed during maintenance, construction or repair work, there is clearly a risk that contractors will be exposed,” said Bridget. “We alone, deal with several cases every year involving builders, joiners, plumbers and electricians who have developed an asbestos-related disease as a result of work they carried out within school buildings often many years ago.”
Bridget said the effective management of asbestos in schools is essential because children are more vulnerable than adults to the effects of even low-level asbestos exposure. “Although most teachers and pupils are unlikely to be at risk in the course of their normal day-to-day activities if asbestos remains undisturbed,” she said, “we are certainly aware of several cases involving teachers and former pupils who have developed asbestos-related illnesses after being exposed to the material at school.
“We currently have the highest number of teachers dying from asbestos-related cancer in the world,” said Bridget. “We know that more than 250 teachers have died from mesothelioma since 1980. What we don’t know however – as there are no available statistics – is the number of former pupils who have died as adults as a result of the asbestos exposure they suffered during their time at school.
“The dangers of asbestos have been common knowledge for more than 80 years so the fact that we are still debating the issue of teachers and children being exposed to the material in 2013 is simply not good enough,” she added. “The government’s inaction in light of the unknown numbers of teachers and former pupils dying each year of asbestos-related illnesses is a disgrace and it is time they put the health of children and staff first by recognising how grave a concern the existence of asbestos in our schools really is.”
Bridget said that it was not enough to merely monitor and manage the levels of asbestos in UK schools. “What is more important - the lives of pupils and staff or the cost of removing this lethal material from our schools?” she said. “We need an immediate audit of the condition and extent of asbestos in schools and a pledge similar to the one the Australian government has given, to remove asbestos from schools by 2030.
“The UK already has the grim record for the highest incidence of mesothelioma deaths in the world with more than 2450 deaths per annum and a 50 per cent increase each year,” she added. “Teacher deaths from mesothelioma are increasing year-on-year and if teachers are dying as a result of poorly managed asbestos in schools, it is surely only a matter of time before we start seeing more and more children suffering the same fate.”
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