Asbestos in Schools  
Update 135 20 Jan 2015

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1. Government review of asbestos policy for schools running out of time

There will be a meeting of the Department for Education (DfE) Asbestos Steering Group in early February to share the findings of the DfE review and to discuss proposals for future policy on the management of asbestos in schools.

In answer to a series of Parliamentary questions  the Minister stated that he expects the report on the review to be published before the end of February.  Time is now running out. If the review had been published when it was meant to be, in June 2014, then policy changes could realistically have been implemented, but that is becoming less likely as Parliament will be dissolved on 30th March.

This is a vitally important review and the safety, and very lives, of staff and pupils depend on it. The Asbestos in Schools Group (AiS) have asked for a public acknowledgement from the Government that they consider asbestos in schools is a serious problem and that they will adopt long term strategic policies to address that problem. The worst case scenario would be for the Government to claim that all is well and use that as a convenient excuse for making just minor adjustments to their present policy.

AiS strongly believe that the issue of asbestos in schools should be a non-party political matter and all parties should work together. It is therefore hoped that the Government will now work with the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Tristram Hunt MP, to address the many problems. At a meeting with AiS he acknowledged that asbestos in schools is a serious problem and the Labour Party would work towards a national strategic plan while in Opposition and in any future government. (1) Such a plan was confirmed by the Shadow Minister for the Department for Work and Pensions.

[Foootnote 2 has links to AiS’ recommendations for the review. (2)]

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2. Shadow Minister “Introduce a strategy for the removal of asbestos.”

The Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP is the Shadow Minister for Work and Pensions, and as such would be the Minister responsible for the HSE. In an interview  with the leading health and safety journal SHP he argued strongly that the next government should adopt a long term strategy for the removal of asbestos from buildings, including schools:

'With only five months before the General Election, Stephen Timms outlines Labour’s health and safety ambitions for the next parliamentary term and beyond. He argues passionately that the next government should introduce and establish a strategy for the removal of asbestos from the built environment. That is not going to happen in the course of one parliament but we think it is time for a strategy with a timetable for removing the asbestos,” he says. “Australia set up an asbestos safety and eradication agency and there needs to be a much more serious UK government effort"

AiS strongly supports this policy.

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3. Council removing asbestos accessible to children

Caerphilly Council adopted a policy of removing asbestos insulating board (AIB) from places accessible to children in their schools following the closure of Cwmcarn School. The Council also confirmed that the school was safe once the removal had been completed by setting a threshold level for airborne fibres some twenty times lower than the one recommended by HSE. (3) AiS have recommended both policies to the Government.

 ‘Work to remove asbestos from 37 schools in Caerphilly County Borough is progressing well, according to the council. .... To date, removal projects have been completed at ten schools… Once completed the programme of works will see 95% of Caerphilly County Borough schools free from amosite asbestos products within occupied school buildings. The remaining 5% of schools where asbestos cannot be safely removed will have the materials boarded-over and sealed.’

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4. HSE policy of management regularly fails in schools

However HSE advise the Government that “Asbestos which is in good condition and unlikely to be disturbed or damaged is better left in place and managed until the end of the life of the building as this presents less risk of exposure to the occupants than the process of removing it.” (4)

HSE’s policy is flawed when applied to schools, and Caerphilly Council’s decision to adopt a policy of removal is testament to that. In Britain there are large amounts of AIB in the walls and ceilings of classrooms, corridors, halls and toilets in thousands of schools. Because schools contain children it is inevitable that the asbestos will be disturbed and damaged as children jostle down a corridor, slam a door or kick a football into a ceiling.  AIB walls and ceilings at Cwmcarn had been disturbed on ‘numerous’ occasions over the course of fifty years, and yet the system of management had been to leave it in place and manage it by painting and filling the scuffs and scrapes each time they happened. This meant the AIB would predictably be damaged again and again - each time releasing dangerous asbestos fibres. Despite the evidence to the contrary HSE assessed the standard of asbestos management as ‘good’ and the school as being ‘perfectly safe to reopen.’ (5)

Once HSE make a statement they will never admit they are wrong even when there is increasing evidence that they are. There is evidence that many schools are not effectively managing their asbestos so it is being disturbed, also children are more at risk than adults. In addition the standards and methods of removing asbestos materials have greatly improved as have the systems of confirming it has been carried out correctly. Proof is that asbestos removal regularly takes place safely in many buildings. Once it is no longer there it is safer for the occupants – particularly if they are children. 

There is considerable concern about HSE’s unsound advice to the Government and how the policy review will be based on it. A further example is their advice on the risks from asbestos:

5. School teachers, support staff and former pupils mesothelioma deaths increase

HSE also advise the Government that the risks to staff and pupils from asbestos in schools are ‘very low.’ However there is increasing evidence they are wrong.

The latest mesothelioma statistics for the Education sector have been obtained from the HSE under the Freedom of Information Act. They show an increasing number of school teachers dying from mesothelioma. 22 school teachers died in 2012. 177 have died since 2001 and 291 have died since 1980.

 


Perhaps some school teachers have been exposed to asbestos elsewhere, but many are known to have been exposed at school and because of teachers’ career pattern the occupation recorded on their death certificate is likely to be the occupation in which the exposure occurred.

But there is further evidence that school staff are dying of mesothelioma. 16 Educational assistants and 8 school secretaries died between 2003 and 2012. School caretakers, cleaners and cooks have also died of the cancer, but the occupational statistics are generic and do not record their deaths under schools.

The teachers’ deaths are the tip of the iceberg, because for every teacher there are 20-30 children and they are more vulnerable. A leading epidemiologist estimated that between 200 and 300 people will die each year of mesothelioma because of their asbestos exposure as children at school. That would equate to between 4,000 and 6,000 mesothelioma deaths over a twenty year period because of asbestos exposure as a child at school.

There are few people who would agree with HSE that the risks are very low when hundreds of teachers and support staff and thousands of former pupils have died, and will die, from the simple act of attending school. HSE advice to the Government is profoundly wrong.

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6. “They are not just statistics, they are people”

These are a few of the many people who have been tragically affected by asbestos exposures at school, and have been reported in the papers since the last newsletter:

Teacher died from cancer caused by hanging pupils' paintings on classroom walls Jennifer Barnett, 60, died from malignant mesothelioma... Coroner Katy Skerrett said: “It is clear that there was sufficient exposure to asbestos in her occupation for me to reach a conclusion that this lady died from an industrial disease.”

Louise Lambert died of mesothelioma. The coroner ruled she died from exposure to asbestos in childhood. She remembered walking through clouds of dust in a passageway at her school while remedial work took place after a blaze at her school.... The coroner.. added that in his 25 years as a coroner he had never come across someone so young who had died from mesothelioma...

Former school caretaker, David Atkinson died of mesothelioma. Grimsby and North Lincolnshire coroner, Paul Kelly, said: “He was exposed to asbestos when working as a joiner and caretaker at various locations. It is plain that during various times he ingested asbestos that was to lead to the malignant mesothelioma and he died as a consequence of an industrial disease.”

Primary school teacher with mesothelioma was not warned of dangers. Penny Devaney said: “I was given no warnings, training or information about the risks and dangers of potential asbestos exposure....” Mrs Devaney worked at a number of schools around Lancashire between 1978 and 2004... She is suing her former employers for failing to prevent her exposure to the hazardous substance.

£181,000 was paid out after a caretaker working at a school was exposed to asbestos fibres.... More than £430,000 paid out to two victims of asbestos in North East Wales

The family of a former school cleaner who died after coming into contact with asbestos is hoping to track down her colleagues. Iris Routledge had worked at the old Fulwell Infants School, in Sunderland, as a cleaner from 1963 until the 1990s. The school was demolished shortly after she left. After becoming ill with stomach cancer almost two years ago, she died suddenly at the city’s Royal Hospital with the official cause found to be mesothelioma due to exposure to asbestos.

Classroom asbestos dust claimed life of former Derbyshire teacher Joe Gallagher … Assistant Coroner for Derby and South Derbyshire, said..." it is clear that he was exposed to asbestos during his time working as a teacher." Mr Gallagher had previously received a settlement for pleural plaques. In a statement prepared before his death he said... I received a settlement claim from Staffordshire County Council in 1998 as it was accepted that I was exposed to asbestos while working at Warslow Secondary School between 1973 and 1988. Derby and South Derbyshire Coroner's Court was told that a doctor examined him and diagnosed him with a second lung disease, mesothelioma.

A retired school cook died from cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, a coroner has ruled. ..... Senior Black Country coroner ruled that Marjorie Lillian Birks died due to industrial disease. Mr Birks-Kindred, who added that his mother had also worked in school kitchens before she retired. "She worked through some of the schools while they were undergoing refurbishment, so it is possible she might have come into contact with it that way."

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7. Little has changed in more than quarter of a century

The evidence is there that teachers, support staff and children are being exposed to asbestos at school and are subsequently dying. All the asbestos is old and the school stock has not been well maintained. It is a damning indictment of successive Governments that BBC Radio 4 'Face the Facts' raised serious concerns about the risks to staff and pupils from asbestos in schools in 1987. It is more than a quarter of a century since then but government policy and practice is essentially unchanged. The current review of asbestos policy can make a difference and the lives of present and future generations of children and staff in our schools depend on it. The Government should heed the evidence, acknowledge there is a serious problem of asbestos in schools and then implement far reaching policies in order to stop this appalling death toll.

Michael Lees MBE  18th January 2015

  1. Meeting Tristram Hunt MP/AiS 19 Mar 2014
  2. AiS and JUAC Recommendations for the DfE Review of Asbestos Policy in Schools
    AiS response to DfE Policy review 
    Asbestos Incidents and Management Failings in Schools
    HSE enforcement action in schools
  3. Caerphilly County Borough Report to Cabinet 10 Dec 2014
  4. Parliamentary Written Answer Minister of State for Schools 8th February 2011
  5. HSE Assessment of potential asbestos risk at Cwmcarn High School. Appendix 2 Summary report on the assessment of compliance with Duty-to-manage at Cwmcarn High School. 21 Jun 2013. P 43. Education Select Committee hearing Asbestos in Schools Q56 13 Mar 2013.

 

Contact:
Michael Lees: michael@lees1262.fsworld.co.uk
Tel: 01409 241496
mob: 0791 0947362

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Authoritative research can be seen at http://www.asbestosexposureschools.co.uk/; that is closely referenced with sources, has a search facility so you can find your specific interest and can be quoted. You can also contact us as shown below or by replying to this email.

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CONTENTS

1. Government review of asbestos running out of time.
2. Shadow Minister: "Introduce a strategy for the removal of asbestos"
3. Council removing asbestos accessible to children
4. HSE policy of management regularly fails in schools
5. School teachers, support staff and former pupils mesothelioma deaths increase.
6."They are not just statistics, they are people".
7. Little has changed in more than a quarter of a century.

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