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TIMES LETTER


From The Times
November 14, 2008

The asbestos threat inside our schools

Sir,

A high proportion of schools were either built or refurbished using large amounts of asbestos and most of it remains to this day because of the government policy of management rather than removal. The Government has refused MPs and teaching unions’ requests to assess the risk and has refused to carry out a national audit of asbestos in schools.

The underfunding of school maintenance has allowed the condition of buildings and the asbestos within to deteriorate. Therefore, rather than the situation improving over time, it has worsened. In many schools it is just a strip of silicone sealant that prevents the release of dangerous levels of asbestos fibres into the classrooms.

At a recent meeting of the Asbestos Sub-Committee of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health, it was announced that the Schools Minister had refused the committee’s request to reinstate a campaign to improve asbestos management in schools. It was, therefore, somewhat ironic that the chairman then stated that it is planned to close the Palace of Westminster, decant the MPs and remove the deteriorating asbestos. When it comes to preventing exposure to asbestos, there seems to be one rule for our legislators and another for our children.

The end result is that teachers and children have been exposed regularly to low levels of asbestos fibres, that cumulatively can cause the aggressive cancer mesothelioma. Owing to the long latency period, statistics do not reveal the contribution of asbestos exposure in schools, for only the occupation at death is recorded.

If one considers the deaths due to other asbestos-related cancers, such as lung cancer, and asbestosis, asbestos kills per annum more people than road traffic accidents. Mesothelioma is difficult to treat and always fatal. However, despite its rapidly increasing incidence, it is the least researched of the UK’s top 20 cancers, with little funding from government.

We call, therefore, on the Government to carry out a national audit of the asbestos content and condition in schools and the associated risks; dedicate funding for mesothelioma research and treatment through a national centre for asbestos-related disease, which we propose; and facilitate research to assess the risks of chronic, low-level asbestos exposure, particularly to children.

Signatories:

  • John G. Edwards - Consultant Thoracic Surgeon and Chair, British Mesothelioma Interest Group, Northern General Hospital, Sheffield
  • Michael Clapham - MP Chair, All Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health

The following also signed the letter but the signatories had to be reduced in number in the Times due to lack of space on the letter page:

  • Anthony Whitson - Chair, Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK
  • Adrian Budgen - Trustee, June Hancock Mesothelioma Research Fund
  • Liz Darlison - Nurse Consultant, Mesothelioma UK
  • Robin Howie - Former President, British Occupational Hygiene Society
  • Dr Mick Peake - Consultant Respiratory Physician and Vice-chairman of Mesothelioma UK
  • Michael Lees