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Asbestos in Schools

Edlington Victoria Primary School

  • Flaws in standard asbestos surveys
  • Question - Condition of asbestos
  • Question - Effectiveness of asbestos encapsulation
  • General lesson for other schools

(5 September 2009)

When asbestos is found in a school it understandably causes anxiety amongst the school authorities, staff, pupils and parents. This is a primary school where in particular we expect every measure to be taken to ensure that our children are safe, and no doubt parents can be assured with complete justification that they are safe in what looks like a very well run school.  That is apart from one aspect and that is because asbestos has been found. It has lain under the floorboards in the school for very many years with no one identifying that it was there.

It is very reassuring for staff and parents that the council stresses that they and the pupils have not been put at risk at any point, and that well might be true. However one must question on what grounds they make that statement. If the asbestos was in a part of the school that the staff and children never enter then they are probably justified in their statement. It is also justified if the asbestos was in pristine condition and encapsulated in such a manner that asbestos fibres could not be released. The article does not say, but if the asbestos material was asbestos lagging surrounding the pipes beneath rooms that were in general use, then the statement has to be qualified.  Regrettably unless asbestos lagging is effectively sealed it can release asbestos fibres, and only comprehensive air sampling carried out with realistic disturbance, or while the rooms are occupied, can confirm whether or not fibres are being released into the rooms. Perhaps that was carried out and therefore the council can justifiably be confident in their statement.  They should be asked.

This really underlines the fact that however old the building is, however well maintained it is asbestos can be found. Presumably the school had an asbestos survey which gave assurances that all was well and any asbestos that had been identified, was being managed and its condition monitored, and yet over the course of many years, indeed decades, this asbestos material has lain undiscovered.  One must hope that it was in good condition and no fibres were released, however if they were being released, then the asbestos survey and management plan have been proved to be worthless.  In that case it would add to the evidence that a normal asbestos survey only identifies the visible asbestos and cannot identify any hidden asbestos.  At least one local authority has sent miniature cameras into the wall voids to see what asbestos is there and what condition it is in, and that certainly seems to be good practice. The risk though is from airborne asbestos fibres which can be inhaled by the occupants of the rooms and only comprehensive air testing while the rooms are occupied will identify that. That is why all schools should have such tests, and until they do hidden asbestos will continue to be found that nobody knew was there. It also confirms that until all asbestos is removed from all our schools, staff and pupils will continue to potentially be at risk.