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Asbestos in Schools
(2 September 2009)
|The Danger of Asbestos in Classrooms is exagerrated
THE threat posed by asbestos to teachers and children in Welsh schools has been exaggerated, experts said last night. The Health and Safety Executive’s Steve Coldrick said teachers’ unions have been “whipped into a frenzy” by stories of members and former pupils falling victim to asbestos-related cancer. He said those in genuine danger remain tradesmen and women who may unwittingly be exposing themselves to high levels.
Mr Coldrick, director of the HSE’s disease-reduction programme, said even if asbestos dust was released from floor tiles, ceiling tiles, wall panels and other common materials and was inhaled by teachers and pupils, the doses would be too low to cause any problems.
Responding to a call made by the NASUWT teaching union for Wales’ 22 local education authorities to begin a complete asbestos-removal programme, he said: “Inhalation of asbestos fibres is something you should sensibly avoid. But all the statements about asbestos time bombs in Welsh classrooms ignore the truth of the last 40 years. “If asbestos was really as dangerous as some people would have you believe then no one would have reached their 50s because we have all been to school. “It isn’t a case of inhaling one fibre and you’re dead.”
Last month information released to the Western Mail under Freedom of Information legislation revealed more than 377,000 youngsters in Wales have lessons in schools containing the material. The natural mineral, which is derived from rock, is versatile and has insulation properties and was used as a building material from the 1950s to the 1980s. It was banned when it was discovered inhaling the fibres can cause cancers, including mesothelioma, which affects the lining of the lungs, and asbestosis, a chronic condition causing shortness of breath and thickening of the lining of the lungs.
In March, Mr Coldrick attended a conference on asbestos at the National Assembly, at which occupational hygienist Robin Howie said teachers were up to 10 times more likely to suffer from asbestos-related cancer than the general population. He said the risk to pupils could be even higher.
One woman dying of mesothelioma has already successfully sued a council for exposing her to asbestos in school. The High Court in Liverpool awarded Dianne Willmore £240,000 compensation after the judge found ceiling tiles in her school contained brown asbestos and she was exposed to the dust when they were disturbed.
At the Assembly conference Mr Coldrick said asbestos was a “horror story”. But he has now told the Western Mail that while it remains a horror story, it is one of the past that does not show the risks today. He said it is tradesmen who received large doses in the 1960s and 1970s who are dying now as a result. “Because those exposures broadly stopped, what we are predicting is that the number of deaths will peak in about four years and then naturally go down because people were exposed decades ago,” he said.
“But an estimated 180,000 people will die up to 2050 and around 70,000 have died so far. “We can’t do anything about those numbers, but we’re now looking at the right thing to stop it continuing.”
Michael Lees 4 Jan 2006