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Home » Latest News » Asbestos in Schools - What are the Risks for Staff and Children of Getting Asbestos Disease?

Asbestos in Schools - What are the Risks for Staff and Children of Getting Asbestos Disease?

Asbestos in Schools - What are the Risks for Staff and Children of Getting Asbestos Disease?

Over 300 teachers have died from mesothelioma since 1980 according to statistics obtained by the National Union of Teachers. The figures do not include the numbers of teachers who have died from asbestos related lung cancer.

Asbestos disease is the killer illness that is still a mystery to much of the population. The use and importation of the final type of asbestos, chrysotile, or ‘white asbestos’ as it was commonly known as, was banned in 1999. ‘White asbestos’ was the least harmful of the main types of asbestos used in industry and construction. The deadlier forms of the mineral, amocite or ‘brown asbestos’ and crocidolite, ‘Blue asbestos’, were banned as long ago as 1985. That is 35 years ago.

So, when we hear that new cases of asbestos disease are being diagnosed in increasingly high numbers, it seems hard to comprehend. To slightly temper that statement the latest report from the Health and Safety Executive(HSE), suggests that whilst over 5000 deaths from asbestos related diseases happened in the last year for which reported statistics are available (2016), we may now be right at the peak of the number of cases reported each year. This peak is anticipated to remain fairly constant until the end of the decade and then the numbers should start to decrease. Some good news if indeed that is the case, but taking a look back ten years or more, it was anticipated that by now, the numbers would already be declining.

Why are the numbers of new cases of asbestos disease at such a high rate?

The reason that so many asbestos disease diagnoses are being made so long after the banning of asbestos, is because asbestos disease has what is known as a long latency period. That means that after a person has suffered asbestos exposure, there is a period that can be anything from 20 to 50 years, during which the asbestos lies dormant within the body before the sufferer starts to experience the symptoms of asbestos disease.

Not just an ‘industrial’ disease?

When we hear of new cases of asbestos disease being diagnosed and people dying from these illnesses, more often than not it will be those who worked in industry, that are the victims; factory workers, those involved in the ship building industry, power station workers, railway engineering workers, construction workers – just to name but a few of the occupations where workers were most at risk of asbestos exposure.

However, a recent article on the BBC website, highlighted the dangers of asbestos in schools and described the death in 2017 from mesothelioma (a form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos) of Michele Reed, a former St Helens school teacher who had worked in what she had described as ‘dusty classrooms’ throughout her career. As her daughter Beth Gibbins was quoted as saying;

‘She did not deserve to be in an environment where potentially there's a danger that if you do this for so long, or even if you do this for five minutes, if you're in the building with it, that's it; it's going to end your life very abruptly and very traumatically at an early stage.’

Over 300 teachers have died from mesothelioma since 1980 according to statistics obtained by the National Union of Teachers. The figures do not include the numbers of teachers who have died from asbestos related lung cancer.

What about asbestos and children in schools?

In 2013 an HSE report entitled, ‘The Relative Vulnerability of Children to Asbestos Compared to Adults’, included amongst its findings, a chilling paragraph which outlined the particular dangers asbestos poses to children;

‘In terms of lifetime risk of developing mesothelioma, it is well recognised that the younger a person is when they are exposed, the greater the risk of developing mesothelioma, which reflects the latency of the disease as younger people are more likely to live long enough for the disease to manifest itself.’

The report went on to say;

‘Because of differences in life expectancy, for a given dose of asbestos the lifetime risk of developing mesothelioma following exposure to asbestos is predicted to be about 3.5 times greater for a child first exposed at age 5 compared to an adult first exposed at age 25 and about 5 times greater when compared to an adult first exposed at age 30.’

Why is there so much asbestos still in our schools?

Many of our present-day schools were built at a time when materials containing asbestos were used in their construction. Asbestos was a component of bricks, cement, roofing and ceiling tiles, cladding material on pipes, doorways, window frames, paint and numerous other materials used in the construction of buildings.

It is well known, that if asbestos is left undisturbed, it does not generally constitute a health hazard. However, because the maintenance and repair of many of these older schools has not been carried out at a speed to keep up with the need for repair, then in line with the rest of the materials in the buildings structure, the asbestos is in an increasingly poor condition. This brings with it the danger of asbestos fibres being released into the air. When that happens, it does constitute a threat, as asbestos diseases are caused by inhaling asbestos fibres and dust. In addition, schools are environments where children play robustly and that brings with it risk that the structure becomes damaged, through pupils banging into old walls, for instance.

What is being done about all this?

The government published a report titled ’Managing Asbestos in Your School’ in February 2017. This was a follow up to a review on managing asbestos in schools put out in 2015. Criticism has been levelled at the governments view that ‘managing’ asbestos in schools is safer than trying to remove it.

An NUT survey carried out amongst it’s members in 2017 found that half of those head teachers/school managers surveyed said that they had not been told whether their schools contained asbestos.

Of the 46% respondents who had been told that their school contained asbestos:

  • Half had not been told where the asbestos was located.
  • Nearly 75% said that the asbestos was in locations accessible to children and staff, such as floors, ceilings, window frames. Schools are unlike the majority of other workplaces in that majority of their occupants are children, who engage in normal, but boisterous behaviours, that are likely to disturb asbestos.
  • Three quarters said that staff had not been provided with asbestos awareness training.
  • Only 2 per cent of respondents said that parents had been given information about the presence of asbestos in the school.
  • The majority of respondents (85%) had not been shown their school’s asbestos management plan.
  • Nearly a quarter were aware of incidents of potential asbestos exposure in their school.
  • The NUT believes that the only way to overcome the continuing threat posed by asbestos in schools is if the government earmarks sufficient funding to facilitate the controlled removal of asbestos in all schools.

In the meantime, the debate will rumble on and asbestos will remain in some of our schools for the foreseeable future, it seems.

Bridge McFarland solicitors have a team of specialist asbestos disease compensation solicitors at their Hull offices, who are able to answer any queries that you might have if you believe that you have been exposed to asbestos whilst working in schools, whether as a teacher, or in any other capacity. For further information please contact James Burrell on 01482 730326 or Leanne Keating on 01482 320 620. Alternatively, you can email them at enquiries@bmcf.co.uk