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Asbestos in Schools

The agreed statement that delegates presented to the PM

Delegates were

The General Secretary of ATL
The Assistant Secretary of NUT
The General Secretary of the NASUWT
Mr Paul Rowen MP

They represented the other Teaching Unions, other Union and support organisations and various specialist organisations including specialist scientists, specialist doctors, health and safety specialists.

Asbestos in schools meeting with PM 13th May 09

The Problem

Schools are a special place because they contain children. Children are more at risk from the dangers of asbestos than adults because their physiology is developing, and they will live longer for any asbestos disease to develop.

There is a serious problem with asbestos in schools. Most schools contain asbestos in one form or another, all of it is old, much of it is deteriorating. Successive governments have had a policy that it is safer to manage asbestos rather than remove it, however frequent asbestos incidents in schools have proved that on many occasions this policy is not working. The incidents frequently cause widespread contamination and exposure of the teachers and children.

Chrysotile asbestos is dangerous and can cause mesothelioma, however many schools contain large amounts of amosite and some contain crocidolite. Amosite is one hundred times more likely to cause mesothelioma than chrysotile and crocidolite five hundred times. Recent HSE research has shown that the UK has four times greater numbers of people dying from “environmental “ exposures than elsewhere in the world. They conclude that this is because the UK imported more amosite than any other country.  These exposures and deaths are precisely those that occur in schools.

The end result is that the occupants of schools are dying from mesothelioma. As the asbestos materials deteriorate the number of school teachers dying from mesothelioma has increased year on year, from 15 in the period 1980-1985 to 64 between 2001- 2005, with a total of 178 school teachers dying of mesothelioma since 1980. Although it is known how many teachers have died, because of the long latency it is not known how many children have been exposed to asbestos at school and have subsequently died. In the USA they made an estimate that 1,000 teachers and children would die of asbestos exposure in their schools, of which 90% would be children. The teachers deaths are therefore but the tip of the iceberg.

This Government acknowledges that schools have not always been well maintained. They are therefore to be applauded for implementing policies and providing funding to either refurbish or rebuild the nation’s schools. These policies will ensure that the schools are an environment that is suitable for teaching and learning. However unless the asbestos is removed it will have to be managed for the life of the school and the teachers and children will remain at risk.
The Way Forward

There are four key points, which must be addressed. They are:

  1. A comprehensive audit of the extent, type and condition of asbestos in schools, and the standards of management.
  2. An assessment to be made of the risk to the occupants, with particular emphasis on children.
  3. The asbestos in schools campaign to be reinstated.
  4. All the asbestos is to be identified and removed in a phased programme when schools are refurbished under BSF and PCP.

We have to provide a practical way forward.  Although the total removal of asbestos must be the goal, it cannot be achieved overnight. However, it is essential that we have the government’s commitment to a policy of progressive removal.  The audit will enable schools to be prioritised so that the most dangerous asbestos is identified and then removed first.

At the same time as establishing the scale of the problem, the risk to the occupants needs to be determined.  It is suggested that the WATCH committee is convened to assess the risk.

Until there is a national assessment of the extent of asbestos in schools it is not possible to allocate resources proportionate to the risk either at national or local level.

It is important that we have the Government’s commitment that the most dangerous asbestos is identified and then removed during BSF and PCP refurbishments. If it is not, then the ultimate goal will never be achieved. This is the best opportunity to take preventative action. If the opportunity is missed when schools are refurbished it may be gone forever.

The hazard is the asbestos material within the structure of the building, but the risk is the airborne fibres. Present systems of surveying only identify the easily accessible materials, do not identify the hidden asbestos and almost never identify whether there are airborne asbestos fibres. Comprehensive and widespread air/static sampling needs to be carried out in schools. This will be an integral part of prioritising schools for asbestos removal and also an integral part of asbestos management.

Training is an essential part of this. It is clear that all too often the present standards are inadequate, therefore an effective means of training needs to be devised for those people entering the profession and all those involved in asbestos management in schools, including headteachers and governors. The training should be mandatory.

The asbestos in schools campaign would include experts from a whole range of disciplines so that the scale of the problem and the risk can be assessed and practical measures and solutions devised and actioned. This body would report to Parliament. It would need to be an inclusive body. There would be a large number of stakeholders from within which a core group would be identified. The body should make an initial report to Parliament by the end of the year.

For far too long there has been a policy of secrecy surrounding the issue of asbestos in schools. The children, parents, teachers and other staff deserve better, and if the problem is to be solved then a policy of openness is essential. 

Preventative action is the centre of this initiative. We are asking the Government to take the lead in applying basic health and safety risk assessment principles to the problem, starting with the comprehensive audit. We are asking the Government to change from a reactive to a proactive position.