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Asbestos in Schools

Teacher’s death raises further asbestos fears

(11 Sep 2008)

Mesothelioma, an illness usually caused by exposure to asbestos, claimed the life of a young teacher in Lancashire last week, once again raising concerns at the thousands UK schools that are thought to contain the potentially deadly substance.

Leigh Carlisle, 28, contracted mesothelioma two years ago and is one of the youngest ever victims of the disease. Although she worked as a primary school teacher in Oldham, it is thought she must have developed the illness while school-aged.

Last year, SecEd carried a special report (shown right) on the asbestos risk in our schools and this week we spoke to safety experts again to ask what schools should do to ensure that staff and students are not put at risk by the buildings in which they work.

John Evans is consultancy director in the Inspection and Testing Department at Connaught Compliance, which provides health and safety risk management. In the last 30 years, the company has assessed thousands of school buildings and worked with dozens of local authorities.

Mr Evans told us: “Pre-1985, the use of asbestos in building was fairly widespread, but since then usage has steadily fallen. However, it is true to say that in all buildings built pre-2000, there is a chance that asbestos could be present.

“Most local authorities have now carried out surveys on schools, and provided the material is in good condition and not at risk of getting damaged, there is no risk of it causing illness.”

Asbestos is known to cause lung, kidney and intestinal cancer, mesothelioma, and the lung disease asbestosis. The latency period for all these asbestos-caused diseases is between 10 and 50 years.

A report by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in February claimed that seemingly innocuous actions, such as slamming a classroom door or hammering a drawing pin into a classroom wall, could be putting thousands of teachers, support staff and students at risk of exposure.

At its national conference in March, the union’s members voted unanimously in favour of charging the government with removing all asbestos from all schools by 2010.

Hank Roberts, the union member who proposed the motion, said at the time: “Asbestos-related diseases now kill more people in Britain than car accidents, and the number is growing. The toted figure of nearly 200 deaths in education between 1980 and 2000 is in my view a great under-estimate. Even if true, however, it is still monstrously unacceptable.”

SecEd’s report last year found that an estimated 13,000 of 24,000 schools in the UK have ageing asbestos-containing materials in them. It is thought that 21 teachers died of mesothelioma between 1980 and 1985, whereas 69 died between 1996 and 2000.

Asbestos also made headlines in America this week when a high school teacher received a one-year probationary sentence after unknowingly allowing students to remove asbestos-laden tiles from a school building during a school clean-up project.

Mr Roberts added: “Asbestos is never safe; fibres are always liable to be released by flood, by fire, by accidental damage, by ignorant contractors, by deliberate vandalism. Only the complete removal of all asbestos will do. Only the complete removal of all asbestos, as it has been in the buildings of parliament, will make our schools and colleges safe for the future.”

However, Mr Evans told us: “I would not push for a complete removal of asbestos from buildings. It provides a number of very important functions, including protection against the spread of fire – although in the event that a building is damaged by fire, then caution should be exercised before returning to it.

“Ongoing diligence by schools and authorities is the key to monitoring risk. Also, good strong lines of communications between authorities, schools, and any external contractors carrying out work on the school should ensure that no danger surfaces.

“School management teams must also ensure that maintenance staff in schools have access to the findings of the asbestos report.”

We asked Mr Evans what teachers and heads could do if they are concerned about a possible asbestos risk in their schools.

He said: “If schools have any concerns that the information in their asbestos report is not reliable, then ask for a re-survey. Also, schools that are known to contain asbestos should make sure that they are checked out every six to 12 months to monitor its condition.

“The Health and Safety Executive offers a number of publications that offer guidance on the management of asbestos, and many local authorities also offer courses for heads, deputy heads and teachers.”

For more information, visit www.connaught.plc.uk, www.atl.org.uk and www.hse.gov.uk

Chris Parr