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Asbestos in Schools

The Times

Friday 10 Dec 2010 - The original article can be seen on the subscription Times web site

Should asbestos in schools be removed?

Opinion is divided over whether it is better to manage or remove the fibre


Michael Lees - Founder of the Asbestos in Schools campaign

In 1967 the Government was warned by the Chief Medical Officer of the particular vulnerability of children to asbestos in schools and that an “astonishingly slight degree” of asbestos exposure could cause mesothelioma. It was advised to take preventive measures to stop the release of asbestos fibres.

Instead of acting, it reassured parents and teachers that the risks were negligible and that “so long as the asbestos is in good condition and unlikely to be disturbed, it is safer to leave it in place and manage it than it is to remove it”.

The policy is fundamentally flawed as all the asbestos in schools is now old. The school stock has not been well maintained and is not in good condition. Normal asbestos surveys in schools invariably do not identify hidden, damaged asbestos that can release fibres through the smallest crack.

The second flaw is that asbestos is likely to be disturbed. At least three quarters of the country’s schools contain asbestos and large quantities of the more dangerous types are in classrooms, halls, corridors and toilets. In 1987 air tests were carried out in schools where the asbestos walls appeared to be in good condition, but dangerous levels of fibres were being ejected into rooms when the walls were kicked and the doors slammed.

The third flaw is management. In 1987 the Health and Safety Executive failed to warn thousands of other schools that potentially had the same problem. Remedial measures were taken only in 2006 and these are not effective. Damaged asbestos was not identified and removed as the policy clearly requires. Instead gaps were sealed with bathroom sealant, which is vulnerable to damage and is not a permanent solution. A further “solution” is to warn teachers not to display children’s work using drawing pins or to hang Christmas decorations from ceiling tiles as doing so can result in dangerous fibre release. It is safe to occupy a building once asbestos has been properly removed, whereas asbestos management in schools is expensive. Head teachers and staff have often not been adequately trained so numerous incidents have occurred resulting in asbestos exposure.

Teachers’ deaths from mesothelioma should be well below average for the population because they should have minimal or no asbestos exposure, but they are dying at a rate of one a month. This is the tip of the iceberg as there are 20 more vulnerable children for every teacher.
The Government refuses to estimate the risks and the long latency of the disease means that coroners do not connect deaths with school exposure. The present policy of management in schools has not worked. It has contributed to Britain having the highest mesothelioma rate in the world

The Government should assess the risks to children and then take proportionate action. Better management, training and surveys identifying damaged asbestos are all essential in the short term. Phased removal of asbestos from our schools, however, provides the only permanent solution.


Karen Clayton - Director of Long Latency Health Risks Division, Health and Safety Executive

It is estimated that in the 1950s more than three million tonnes of asbestos-containing materials were installed in buildings in Britain for fire protection, insulation and other uses. This was before the potential risks were recognised and its use was progressively banned. Removal of this material is continuing and it is thought that a third to a half of it has gone.

In forming a view about the legacy of asbestos in buildings, policymakers, businesses and the public need take a rational view of what is known about the risks. Asbestos becomes a risk to human health only when it is released into the air and inhaled. People now considered most at risk of exposure are tradesmen and maintenance workers who disturb the fabric of buildings

No safe exposure level has been identified, so the law requires that exposure is reduced as low as reasonably practicable. The evidence shows that the higher the exposure, the higher the risk of developing an asbestos-related disease. The challenge is how to minimise exposure to airborne asbestos fibres while continuing to use and maintain existing buildings.

It is understandable that there are demands for public buildings, such as schools, to be be stripped immediately of all asbestos. However, there are considerable difficulties.

From a practical point of view, asbestos-containing materials are often found within the fabric of buildings or attached to other building materials, so they cannot be easily removed without interfering with the structure of the building, involving large scale disruption and damage.
Research shows that airborne concentrations of fibres in buildings containing undisturbed asbestos materials in good condition are very low. Removing them inevitably entails their disturbance and thereby releasing fibres into the air. What is often not appreciated is that unless work is carried out to a very high standard, removal of asbestos is likely to create a greater health risk to those reoccupying buildings than leaving it where it is.

Asbestos removal requires specialised training and equipment and the industry, both in terms of removal and waste disposal, might not be able to cope with a sudden large scale increase in the volume of work. There would be a considerable challenge in ensuring that a proactive programme of asbestos removal from all public buildings did not lead to a higher exposure to the population as a whole in the long run.
HSE’s approach is to require the active management of asbestos in buildings, based on the principles of risk assessment. This provides a practical way to identify, prioritise and properly plan what action needs to be taken. Where asbestos-containing materials are assessed as being in good condition and not in a position where they are likely to be damaged, they should be left in place and monitored.

However, when asbestos is in poor condition, or when it is likely to be damaged during the normal use of the building, it should be sealed, enclosed or removed.